22nd July 2023
Words: Chris Richmond
It's surprising that we've never had a live-action Barbie movie - in an era overflowing with reboots and remakes and sequels, it seems so obvious a film to make. But we shan't complain, because by all accounts it's fallen into the hands of the exact right team at just the right time. And fans of Greta Gerwig, the film's writer and director, needn't be fearful: this is a Greta Gerwig film in every way that a film can be. It's sharp and meaningful, and a genuinely fascinating and timely study of womanhood. Gerwig is slowly building one of the most exciting filmographies in Hollywood, and Barbie has proven that she can do the big-budget Hollywood thing with ease.
It's also her funniest film yet - the humour really, really lands. It's one of the movie's undeniable strengths, with the final line in particular being especially guffaw-inducing. The script is almost Shrek-like in its prioritisation of the adult audience over the kids in terms of its humour. Barbie will be funny for kids, but it's hilarious for adults.
Margot Robbie is as glowing and as warm as we've come to expect from one of the generation's finest performers. She holds the film together with her tender and charming depiction of a woman in turmoil, and it's hard to imagine anyone else forming the film's centrepiece with as much grace and strength. Ryan Gosling's Ken is just as watchable, affirming him as a legitimate force of comedic performance. It's a string to his bow that he doesn't tap into enough and which hopefully we'll see more of in the aftermath of his Ken. It would not be unexpected nor undeserved to see Academy Award consideration for each of them when Award Season rolls around at the end of the year.
America Ferrara is immensely likeable as the story's human protagonist, although her arc feels a little underdeveloped. A few more scenes of her and her daughter at the beginning of the film before Barbie enters their lives would have done wonders for her narrative, although her third-act monologue forms the centrepiece of the film's feminist manifesto and is delivered with exceptional tenderness - a new installment into the Greta Gerwig Canon of great female monologues, alongside Saoirse Ronan's in Lady Bird, and Florence Pugh's in Little Women. Kate McKinnon is the scene-stealer of the piece, hilarious and freaky in equal measure, delivering her lines with expert comedic precision and timing. Michael Cera, a dominant presence of the mid-noughties comedy, has felt so absent from our screens for years and is given solid work here. It's a performance which leans into his same old trick, but it's a trick we've missed seeing on our screens. And the fleet of supporting Barbie's which continuously surround our hero glow on the screen, each as beautiful and diverse as the last, with key moments and funny jokes distributed evenly between them giving each of them a moment to shine.
Visually, the film is an absolute candy-floss feast, fizzing with pinks and pastels and rainbows. It looks stunning, and what a delight it is to see a film that actually built the sets our actors interact with. Similarly, the costuming is impeccable, immaculately researched and carefully put together paying homage to countless Barbies and their outfits of years past.
But there's one thing - and its a crucial, almost fatal thing - that lets the entire piece down: the story. The plot feels disjointed and poorly constructed. There are scenes and ideas which feel rushed, but equally there are some which overstay their welcome and feel overlong. The pace almost threatens to drag at points, and it worryingly feels every bit of its near two hour running time. The Barbie In The Real World storyline lasts for all of ten minutes and never truly lives up to its potential - this could have, and perhaps should have, been the premise of the entire film rather than what eventually surmounts to a footnote in the wider narrative. It's the arduous and hackneyed Kens Take Over thread which dominates the film's second half, a less-interesting throughline than the film's original premise, and a storyline which ends up more annoying than engaging. The film raises valid points about the state of womanhood and manhood in today's society, and the way in which those two states intersect is interrogated effectively, but it almost comes at the expense of simply telling a good story.
Which is not to say the film is a failure - it isn't. It's still a fabulously entertaining night out at the cinema. It's just that all of its brilliant but separate individual elements aren't strung together with quite as much slickness as promised. But the film has been a runaway success at the box office, and this can only be a good thing. Hopefully the lesson learned from Hollywood is not simply MORE TOY MOVIES! but is instead that audiences respond to and will show up for thoughtful, well-constructed movies by accomplished directors with an uncompromised vision that have something to say about the world.