Live action films based on toys isn’t a new concept. Clue kicked it off in 1985, to great success. Over the decades, there have been some highs (Mars Attacks, Transformers) and lows (Battleship, Transformers). On average, the quality of most live action toy movies hasn’t been very good. But Hollywood keeps trying because these are beloved products that people want to see done well.
Honestly, up until Barbie, I don’t think any of those live action toy movies have been special. So is Barbie special? Is it even good? (You can see where I ranked it, here)
The good things about Barbie
I think Barbie is an excellent movie. The opening few minutes that spoof 2001: A Space Odyssey were more interesting to me than the entire three-hours of Oppenheimer. It’s such a bold way to start because you’re announcing right away that you’re taking on the cinematic canon and beginning with one of the most impressive movies ever made. To not only so perfectly channel Kubrick’s shots and visuals but also simultaneously spoof the scene while seriously re-applying its commentary on humans and technology to little girls and toys—that’s incredible. It’s this kind of intertextual stuff I don’t think cinema does enough these days but that is very common in fine art, poetry, and literature. And used to be something you’d see more of in film.
From beginning to end, Gerwig had me excited to see what choice she would make next. Sometimes what interested me was the stuff of cinematic language, like the 2001 reference. Sometimes it was the performances and comedy. Other times it was the existential and literary stuff that gives Barbie such depth. That Barbie ends up being one of the best social commentary films of the 21st century (so far) is amazing. Gerwig (and co-writer Noah Baumbach) made an instant classic that casually takes a place in the canon of Hollywood cinema.
My absolute favorite moment is when Barbie quotes Fight Club at Ken. I first saw Fight Club in 2000. It was 3 in the morning. I was 13 and just discovering what insomnia was. Then suddenly there was this movie on HBO talking about insomnia and a lot of other things I had never thought. It blew my mind and has been my favorite movie ever since. For a solid decade, I was happy about the public reaction to Fight Club as it went from dismissed to an accepted masterpiece. Until recently. Fight Club has fallen out of favor as people have seen it as a “bro” film that encourages toxic masculinity more than discouraging it. They aren’t wrong. Fight Club is so clear that the Brad Pitt version of Tyler is a bad thing but that hasn’t stopped people from starting to champion him and his “teachings”. So people missing the point of the movie caused a backlash against the movie. Sigh.
Yet you have Barbie subtly throw out her version of “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f**king khakis.” Except instead of being this ugly, harsh, masculine thing, she makes it kind, thoughtful, and uplifting. The goal of both versions is to empower but the Fight Club version takes a more Sith approach while Gerwig makes it Jedi.
I also kind of love that Barbie is Gerwig’s version of Baumbach’s White Noise. If you don’t know, the two are married. And Gerwig had a lead role in White Noise. White Noise is, like Barbie, about thanatophobia, fear of death. Both movies establish these rock star lives for their main characters, only to have them suffer an existential crisis that brings their world crashing down around them and a desperate search for direction. There’s a lot of overlap between them. That’s cool to me. That a married couple could explore similar topics together yet so individually and find their own commentary on it. I wish more artists all explored a topic together like that.
And, of course, the performances are fantastic. I think Margot Robbie has to be in the running for best of her generation. Watch Babylon then watch Barbie then watch Babylon then watch Barbie. Her range is crazy. Her charisma is crazy. Her ability is crazy.
And then I’ve always thought of Gosling as a good actor. A magnetic presence. But there’s always a cool guy kind of distance. Whether it’s in Drive or La La Land or The Nice Guys. There’s a bit of a wall up. Which isn’t a bad thing. It arguably makes him more interesting. Barbie was the first time I felt like I really saw Gosling tear down every single wall and be so external and vulnerable.
And then what a classic Will Ferrell role. Like Chaz in Wedding Crashers, Ferrell’s still got it.
And America Ferrera’s speech about being a woman was delivered so well. One of the most captivating deliveries I’ve seen in 2023.
Issa Rae also needs to be in a ton more things. She leaps off the screen.
Overall, I love how many topics Barbie touched on and the social commentary and ultimately the film being such a profound statement on how lucky we are to simply be alive and get to experience what we experience. It highlights so much negativity and toxicity in order to circle back around to a place of profound gratitude and potential. That’s not easy to do at all, much less do as well as Barbie did it.
I love “Push” by Matchbox Twenty so that was nice to hear but also—oh man. I felt seen in an uncomfortable way. Especially since my wife and I just went to a Matchbox Twenty concert and that was the song I was most excited to hear them perform. I guess I have some Kenergy.
The bad things about Barbie
As much praise as I have for Barbie, it’s not perfect.
Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is it being a giant ad for Mattel. It’s not a huge deal for me but I can see how it wouldn’t sit well with some people. And it does seem like Mattel stayed hands off enough to let Gerwig do her thing.
Then you have some cheesy and underdeveloped things. The mother and daughter subplot with Gloria and Sasha is a bit forced and by the numbers. The ghost of Ruth Handler is effective but also what? The battle scene between all the Kens could have had some better choreography. Dua Lipa’s line delivery was kind of rough. There were random jokes that just weren’t funny to me at all, like when Ken ran into the waves then bounced back. Or 20% of Kate McKinnon (who I love).
None of those things were a huge deal for me because the good parts were so good. But they were noticeable.
The ugly things about Barbie
Simu Liu was underutilized. He got to be on screen a lot but I wish he had more to do. I kept thinking they were going to give him some big moment. Then Michael Cera would get a moment instead.