de facto film reviews 3 stars

Barbie is a fantasy comedy based on Mattel’s fashion dolls that I can’t see all families and young children enjoying. The welding of satire on consumerism, materialism, and capitalism into a narrative about female empowerment and smashing the patriarchy can be a tough sell for some who prefer their escapism not to be merged with heavy-handed politicking. However, the film ends up being tempered with some rich irony, social commentary, and thoughtful poignancy, where the meta satire eventually elevates itself. The end result is overstuffed, but it ends up becoming more universal in appeal for those willing to go along for the exuberant ride. Expectations will certainly be defied by many audiences, and Barbie will inevitably be a participant in the tireless culture wars, but that is where the genius of Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s (Lady Bird, Little Women) third feature lies.

If anyone is under the impression that Barbie is going to be this senseless cash grab that capitalizes by promoting a toy line, Gerwig’s hyped-up, stylized work of pop art makes it clear that it’s anything but a hallow cash grab. The film cleverly holds a mirror to our current environment and societal milieu and asks questions about human complexities and why we have such severe polarization. Shifting targets from satire of corporate greed to post-Trump rampant individualism, the well-cast, more sophisticated than expected film repairs much of the bread-dead franchises and easy cash grabs that we have received over the years; it’s also very playful, but it’s tempered with existential themes on aging, finding relevance, personal enlightenment, and eventually aiming to find progress along the way. Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with her partner and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, accomplishes a very large canvas of ideas with efficiency and soul, even though it goes into some complex areas.

Everything to Know About 'Barbie' Movie Starring Margot Robbie | Parade Magazine | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

For the longest time, Barbie has been a mooted prospect for Hollywood studios with many different pitches, but star and producer Margot Robbie and David Heyman were wise to hire the duo of Gerwig and Baumbach to take the reins here in their very first blockbuster feature. While Baumbach has always had a more neurotic approach to his writing, Gerwig always seemed to put a more poignant touch to his films, where she served as co-writer for Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America. Now the tables have turned, and Gerwig is behind the director’s chair, and her humanism that is so dignified in Lady Bird and Little Women prospers once again. With Barbie, Gerwig’s female empowerment perspective is ideally suited for her sensibilities to shine once again. Stylistically, Gerwig has executed a very flashy film that holds artifice, some hilarious dance numbers, and social commentary on the brutal truths of the outside world. While it might seem surprising that a major studio like Warner Bros. has allowed some creative freedom that will easily be dismissed as “virtue signaling” or “Woke” by its detractors, but there are enough emotional truths in the film that speak to the human condition, as ironic as that might sound.

Right from the start, the film starts off with the clever prologue that has sadly been used in the first teaser trailer of Gerwig paying homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey:  where the narrator (Helen Mirren) narrates the origins of how little girls got tired of playing with little baby dolls and moved onto Barbie dolls, as we see the girls break the dolls as Richard Strause’s Also Sprach Zarathustra plays in the background. We’re instantly transported and guided right into Barbie Land, a candy-colored, too-perfect world that echoes the artificial worlds of The Truman Show and Pleasantville. We see Barbie (Robbie), or as she refers to herself, “Stereotypical Barbie,” as she is the charismatic, blonde Barbie that has been a staple since Mattel released the doll. The production design of Barbie is quite sublime, thanks to the vibrant cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Sarah Greenwood.

Barbie (2023) - IMDb Courtesy Warner Bros. 

Barbie’s world of Barbie Land is a utopia with no disruption, and everyone lives peacefully and without prejudice. It’s too perfect where the women, all named Barbie, run the world of Ken. The various Barbies hold different careers, as President Barbie (Issa Rae), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), Journalist Barbie (Ritu Arya), and the construction crew are all Barbies. The women in Barbie land are independent, career-driven, and caring, as all the endless Kens just basically hang out at the beach, listen to music, and alternate their turns to surf on the artificial waves. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is the one who craves the most attention from Barbie, who is quite clingy and longs to be Barbie’s girlfriend. There are other Kens as well, played by Simu Liu, Kingsldy Ben-Adir, Scott Evans, and a few hilarious cameos.

Playing with the tropes of The Truman Show and Pleasantville, as Barbie is dancing with fellow Barbies at a dance party, she shouts out about the thought of tying, which disrupts the whole dance party. Meanwhile, as the days go on, Barbie begins to have bizarre flashbacks to a childhood home playing with Barbie dolls, and everything else begins to go off-kilter as she realizes she has flat feet and that her shoes are no longer comfortable on her. For guidance, she ends up seeking advice from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who has been abused, crayoned on, and has a bad haircut from a young girl cutting her hair. She recommends Barbie venture out into the real world to find answers to her existential crises.

The Best Fashion Moments From The Barbie Movie Trailer | Harper's Bazaar ArabiaCourtesy Warner Bros. 

Barbie ventures out to the Real World to what’s referred to as “The country of California,”  where Mattel is located, and once they reach Los Angeles, Barbie quickly realizes that women are not in charge of everything, and she is instantly objectified by some men, and Ken loves the attention that he gets in the real world. Eventually, Ken stumbles into how The Patriarchy operates, which consists of machismo, toxic traits, nepotism, and domineering over women. Yes, the word Patriarchy is certainly overused in the film. Meanwhile, the FBI discovers Barbie and Ken are in Los Angeles, and they inform Mattel to get the duo back to Barbie Land, in which Will Ferrell plays the CEO of an all-male company who ends up plotting to trap Barbie and get her shipped back to Barbie Land. Barbie ends up encountering a young girl named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), whom she somehow recalls being the doll she played with when she was a girl, but the exchange doesn’t go too well as Sasha is very idealistic and informs her that the Barbie dolls have held the women’s movement back decades. She is the daughter of a Mattel employee named Gloria (America Ferrera), who ends up becoming an ally to Barbie and helps her get back to Barbie Land. Once Barbie returns, she notices Ken has already arrived, changing Barbie Land to mirror the real world, where men now hold power and control over women as all the careers of Barbies are gone, including the President.

From there, Barbie maintains its wackiness and silliness, but it finds some universal human truths about depression and anxiety, where Barbie just lays on the ground in emotional defeat, which leads to the greatly scripted and acted monologue of Ferrera talking about the expectations and pressures of being a woman. The message resonates, and it’s quite an astounding moment in the film. It’s moments like that where Gerwig anchors the material from being overly self-aware or an exercise in cheap irony. It would be easy to dismiss Barbie as just another commercial property movie that just advertises for Mattel, and it certainly does just that. This time, it’s embedding more clever ways to subvert a particular commercial property that can bring refreshing and evolving meanings to the toy line. With that, Barbie ends up working on various levels, mostly as a successful satire; the other is a polemic, but for me, it’s more about female empowerment, and Gerwig captures so many genuine emotional truths about womanhood, living life, and other complexities that certainly make the material loftier than I anticipated. Perhaps Gerwig leverages out too many ideas, but she always keeps the viewer engaged, involved, and amused all the way down to the core. Ultimately, Barbie will ruffle some feathers, but with all its baggage and inevitable discourse, the talents of Gerwig, Baumbach, and the cast offer legitimate stakes in executing the film with bliss and charm.

Barbie opens in theaters Friday, July 21st