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Reviewing Greta Gerwig's Barbie: A Meticulous Journey from Plastic to Powerful

by Isabel Week Hankins




It’s official: Barbie has taken over the world. 

Having headed straight to cinemas on the movie’s release date (July 21st), we were eager to let you in on what we saw. 

The verdict is clear: Barbie provides a satirical dive into fashion, feminism, and freedom - but that doesn’t come without its flaws. 

While the plastic doll’s founding year may have been 1959, thanks to Greta Gerwig and her co-writer and long-term partner, Noah Baumbach, new generations get to witness the toy’s re-birth in Mattel Films’ highly anticipated first production.

Yes, there are more Mattel movies now in the works, including Hot Wheels, Uno (which you may have spotted in the background of the Barbie set), and Polly Pocket. 

After first being teased with leaked set photos over a year ago, it seemed the whole world went Barbie made. 

Helped further by a marketing campaign for the history books and many pink-carpeted press tours, we all had high expectations for this film. 

Of course, Mattel also had expectations and interests that needed to be met. 

To avoid the film becoming a feature-length advert to increase Mattel’s bottom line, we needed to see Barbie be challenged, not just celebrated.

But, if anyone was going to tackle such a task it was going to be Greta Gerwig.

Famed for her previous films, Ladybird and an adaptation of Little Women, Gerwig quickly presented herself as the feminist filmmaker we’d all been dying for: thought-provoking, sentimental and paired with a sense of humour. 

As kids, playing with Barbies was fun and full of happiness. Watching that nostalgia, satire and some meaningful dialogues combine filled me with the same kind of happiness.

Margot Robbie plays stereotypical Barbie. Think of the blonde Barbie that comes to mind of when someone asks, what’s a Barbie? 

She’s perfectly happy with her life in Barbie Land with her high-flying friends including President Barbie (Issa Rae), physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey) and Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney).

Each Barbie represents a doll that is being played with in the real world, but they themselves can also cross into the ‘real world’ in their own form by travelling through space, snow, sea and such. 

Although seemingly ridiculous, the visuals for these scenes were incredible. And its key to note that no CGI was used in this movie. 

Greta Gerwig's brilliant creation, the Barbie Land set, stands out as one of the most captivating aspects of her movie. 

Designed by Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, the set is located at Warner Bros Studios in Watford, UK and boasts oversized hairbrushes, a waterless shower and pool, and a dazzling array of pink accents that take center stage.

Notably, there are no solid black or white colors in any of the Barbie Land set designs, emphasizing the dominance of pink in this dreamlike world.

On the screen, Robbie's character resides in a mesmerizing fuchsia-pink house, drawing inspiration from both the classic 1960s Barbie Dreamhouse and the modernist Kaufmann House designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946 in Palm Springs, California.

Creating this magical world was no easy feat, as Greenwood pointed out that every detail in Barbieland was meticulously crafted to be 23 percent smaller than the human actors, mirroring the iconic proportion of a real-life Barbie being "much bigger than her house even though it's built for her"

The movie features hand-painted skies, sunsets, mountains, and palm trees, creating a 2D visual reminiscent of a real Barbie Dream House.

Before you get a chance to question this mind boggling pink-coloured reality, you are quickly swept into the narrative. After all, Barbie has another costume change so there’s no time to waste.

In Barbie Land, as the name suggests, the Barbies are in charge. 

With a female President and an all-Barbie Supreme Court, Barbie’s influence is not to be laughed at. The Kens, on the other hand, are basically second-class citizens. Their only purpose is to celebrate the successes of Barbie in the back row, something they seem happy enough about - sound familiar?

Barbie’s leading Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, only seems to smile when Robbie’s Barbie looks his way. It’s giving golden retriever vibes, which does become a bit tedious (in the film and irl).

During a spectacular La La Land-esque dance number, all Barbie has ever known comes tumbling down when she starts to have sudden thoughts about death. 

Her feet have fallen flat and, God forbid, she has discovered one cellulite dimple. On her mission to cure her cellulite and hopefully, more importantly, stop the recurring thoughts of death, she travels to the real world to find the little girl who has been playing with her. 

The journey to the real world reveals a stow-away of Gosling’s Ken who is on his own mission: to keep Barbie happy.

The real world offers vastly different experiences for the two dolls. 

Ken becomes infatuated with the power the patriarchy has to offer, which was equally entertaining and disturbing to watch. 

With his newfound love, he ditches Barbie to tell his fellow Kens about the possibilities of the patriarchy - although slightly sidetracked by his love of horses. 

Meanwhile, Barbie discovers she hasn’t created a world where women can accomplish anything they put their minds to, as her fellow Barbies had always assumed. 

Instead, she discovers Barbie itself is a sexist and capitalist creation that upholds unrealistic expectations unwanted in modern society.

As the Kens are hypnotised by the patriarchal mystique, Barbie is given a resonating and powerful speech on the difficult relationship between women and society from America Ferrera, who plays a Mattel employee with a long-term love for Barbie. 

With the help of her friends, new and old, a beach battle, and a couple of musical numbers I could have done without, Barbie gets her answer.

Although perhaps Gosling’s musical numbers can be forgiven given his adamant claimed to LA Times that the big musical number actually had absolutely nothing to do with him: "Ken sang that song. I never sang like that in my life. I don’t know why or how that happened."

Gerwig opted for a fable of self-discovery and individualism, an important lesson to learn even if you are a 60-year-old doll. 

However, Gerwig’s thought-provoking comments on the patriarchy, feminism and gender stereotypes overshadowed any true, clear message of the film. 

Jokes I won't even try to explain became attempts to comment on society when the film could have thrived with a more head on approach.

Robbie’s performance was moving and enjoyable, but even the likes of an Oscar-nominated actress can struggle against the sometimes-uncalled-for Ken-ergy. 

Even though Ken’s jokes weren’t always called for, we got to see Gosling’s excellent comedic timing, proving he’s not just a hot piece of plastic. His sensitive and inadvertently adorable nature was meme-worthy, matching the vibes we’ve seen from Gosling across the press tour.

In one of the last interviews ahead of the strike, Gosling spoke with GQ on the "KEN Things Ryan Gosling Can't Live Without". 

The 6-minute video is full of iconic and ridiculous quotes, including Gosling’s explanation that "Behind every great Barbie there’s a Ken who is totally fine with that. Hopefully he's right behind her, in case she needs anything because she deserves it. Because she's Barbie, and he's just Ken."

Barbie, of course, will be a hit. The build-up to the film’s release almost guaranteed that. 

Despite its flaws, Barbie was funny, visually exciting and most importantly joyful. 

Gerwig’s overload of societal commentary in the film made the sacrifices in the film’s story clear. But, the key takeaway is to be irrefutably and unapologetically Barbie, ahem, you.

Edited by Emily Duff

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