This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
This article about how, uh, awesome Mattel is contains major spoilers for Barbie. Click here for a spoiler-free review.
The history of toy adaptations on the big screen has been troubled ever since Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure hit theaters in 1977. For every Transformers that turned a profit there’s a Masters of the Universe or Bratz that infuriated fans and flopped hard at the box office. The Lego Movie proved an unabashedly promotional film could still be a critical and commercial success, but the Lego film franchise fizzled out within five years and the best knockoffs other studios could manage were the laughably bad UglyDolls and Playmobil: The Movie. Enter Barbie.
The iconic fashion doll has starred in more than three dozen direct-to-video animated films (really!) and built a decent cult following of film lovers in the process. She’s the most obvious choice for Mattel’s rapid expansion into film production. But “Mattel’s rapid expansion into film production” is a nightmare sentence and there’s no reason to believe the toy-company-turned-studio is all that dedicated to Barbie being a success when they’re also developing individual films for Polly Pocket, American Girl, Chatty Cathy, Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Uno, View-Master, and the Magic 8 Ball.
Really! All of those are real!
And they’re still only a fraction of the projects Mattel Films currently has in development. Mattel Films. Mattel Films. While some of these plans will inevitably go the way of the live-action He-Man reboot Mattel and Netflix spent $30 million on before canceling, the toy giant’s scattershot approach to film development reeks of desperation. And in a Hollywood landscape where we’re never more than few months from a Marvel movie that will check most people’s boxes, there’s little reason to trust the people who expect moviegoers to care about the difference between Matchbox and Matchbox 20.
This is all to say that the only thing that could possibly be as surprising as a live-action Barbie film being good is a live-action Barbie film being something audiences are excited for. Yet here we are! The first trailer, which featured an unexpected tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey alongside flashes of vibrantly colored musical numbers, won over many viewers immediately. Others were swayed when the film’s shared release date with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer resulted in a meme so popular it has as robust a Wikipedia page as either film.
It’s Tearing-a-Hole-in-Spacetime Barbie!
Barbie finds Barbie (Margot Robbie) living a perfect life in Barbieland alongside a group of friends that includes Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Barbie (Hari Nef), and Barbie (Sharon Rooney). She’s dating Ken (Ryan Gosling), though he’s clearly far more invested in the relationship than she is and his insecurity leads him to frequently clash with Ken (Simu Liu). Confused yet? The only people in Barbieland who aren’t named Barbie or Ken are Barbie’s sister(s) Skipper and Allan (Michael Cera) and Midge (Emerald Fennell), two dolls that were discontinued in real life by Mattel for being too gay and too pregnant, respectively.
It isn’t long before Barbie’s idyllic existence is disrupted by thoughts of death, heels that touch the ground, and cellulite. She visits Barbie (Kate McKinnon) and learns a hole has been torn in the fabric of spacetime that separates Barbieland from the real world. To fix it, she has to travel to Los Angeles and mend whatever is upsetting the girl who is playing with her in doll form. This is a journey she thinks she needs to make on her own, but Ken decides to come along for the ride anyway. Men, amirite?
Barbie quickly meets up with Mattel employee Gloria (America Ferrera) and her daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), whose strained relationship is the source of her existential troubles. But she also catches the attention of Mattel executives (most notably Will Ferrell) and the FBI, who pursue her in an effort to keep Barbieland’s existence hidden from the public. Meanwhile, Ken is delighted to discover a world where he’s respected simply for being a man. After learning all he can about “patriarchy,” he runs back to Barbieland to tell his friends what he’s learned.
Barbie returns to Barbieland, too. But not before close calls with Mattel and an encounter with the ghost of Barbie inventor Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman). When she makes it home with Gloria and Sasha in tow, she’s shocked to discover Ken’s patriarchy has caught hold and the other Barbies have been brainwashed into acting as servants for the Kens’ macho new lifestyle. Worse yet, Ken’s changes appear in the real world as new Barbie products designed to teach patriarchy to young girls.
Barbie wants to grapple with the doll’s legacy. Mattel may not agree.
It’s no surprise when Barbie thwarts the Mattel executives and returns both the Barbies and the Kens to their senses. But what many viewers won’t expect is how willing the film is to confront the criticism the Barbie doll has faced since its introduction. While the Barbies hold the optimistic belief that their existence inspires young girls to be anything they can dream of, Robbie’s character is quickly confronted with the toll the doll has taken on many young girls’ self-esteem and body image. And Mattel is portrayed as directly culpable to that effect. The company’s board is an all-male assembly of villains who view girls simply as a path to profit, and they won’t consider changing the doll to mitigate negative impacts unless they can ensure financial success while doing so.
The film does offer a sense of resolution, with the Mattel executives eventually coming around to releasing a Barbie doll who better reflects the reality of many women in the workforce today. But if you look at Mattel’s press release announcing the film’s toy tie-ins, you’ll find no such doll among Barbie’s Die-Cast Pink Corvette, MEGA Dreamhouse, or Gold Disco Jumpsuit. Anyone looking for a doll of Ferrera’s struggling working mom will discover her character is only available with a “Pink Power Pantsuit” and immaculately styled hair. The search for Barbie‘s self-awareness in Mattel’s toy offerings only yields disappointment.
We need to talk about Greta.
Of course, it would be disingenuous to imply Mattel was the driving creative force behind the film. That credit goes to writer/director Greta Gerwig and cowriter Noah Baumbach. The two have been a real-life couple for over a decade and share two children, and you can bet Baumbach is never asked the questions about being a working parent in Hollywood that Gerwig receives. Barbie is a deeply personal film and while that is limiting in some respects (though the movie is very diverse, it would be an entirely different film if Robbie’s role was played by anyone other than a cisgendered white woman) it allows it to pack a stronger punch than a more general film would offer.
But Gerwig also had to get Mattel to sign off on her treatment of the Barbie character, and the director has been more than open about the challenge of meeting the company’s demands. While Mattel may not have written the film, they did consent to a scathing condemnation of their business practices hitting theaters with their signature on it. One would think (or at least hope) that involved some introspection and commitment to action on their part.
Being based on a doll isn’t what makes Barbie a great film.
There will always be the question of how meaningful a toy commercial aimed at the anti-consumerist crowd can actually be. But most skeptics (excepting perhaps those with YouTube channels devoted to anti-feminist rage bait) will still find themselves won over with at least some aspects the film. Barbie is a joyful technicolor delight and many women and girls will see themselves on the screen and be better for it.
And that’s a big part of the reason the film is facing record-breaking box office success. While the flurry of memes can’t be reliably replicated, the earnestness of Barbie‘s message can. But Mattel and the studios it’s partnered with appear dead set on seeing the film’s success as confirmation they have a valuable IP, as if the idea of a live-action Barbie adaptation wasn’t seen as laughable just a few years ago.
Entertainment executives seem entirely incapable of grasping what makes Barbie meaningful. Case in point: Warner Bros. distribution executive Jeff Goldstein took the film’s financial success as an opportunity to make not one but two tasteless jokes about Barbie having long legs. It’s a move so laughably misogynistic and out-of-touch it might as well have been delivered by a besuited Will Ferrell. And let’s not forget the hilariously unsubtle irony of releasing a movie where evil business executives profit off a woman’s likeness without her consent in a midst of a historic SAG-AFTRA strike centered on that exact issue.
Barbie is a great film. And it’s a great film because Mattel and Warner Bros. got lucky in finding a team of creatives and performers who genuinely cared and then got lucky again when they managed not to screw up that team’s work along the way (though not for lack of trying). If Mattel hopes to repeat that success for any of the other fifteen films they have in development, they desperately need to seek some of the introspection Barbie offers.
Maybe Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and Big Jim will be good. I hope they are. But in the meantime, I’m not holding my breath.
Barbie is in theaters now. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Featured image by Jon Negroni.