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  • Writer's pictureKurt Loder

Barbie doll comes to life in new movie

Courtesy Photo Ryan Gosling (left) and Margot Robbie star in Barbie.

Everything in Barbie Land is perfect, and mostly pink (or salmon, or coral, or some variation).

The skies are a flawless azure blue, and the palm trees, of which there are many, are frankly fake, although the residents of Barbie Land—largely Barbies, of course—have no way of judging this. For them, everything is just right, and every day is a great day.

Also resident in this femme-centric realm is a subsidiary tribe of Kens—blandly hunky guys of various races whose purpose is to explain things to the Barbies (like the plot of The Godfather, for example) or to demonstrate their unremarkable skills as campfire guitar players.

A Ken will sometimes have a great day, too, but only after a Barbie favors him with a glance.

That director Greta Gerwig and her co-writer, Noah Baumbach, have managed to build a movie around a near-60-year-old doll that’s beloved almost entirely by little girls is a rare feat. (Not unique, though: Who would have thought that a Disneyland amusement park ride could be turned into a world-conquering pirate-movie franchise?) Barbie, the picture Gerwig has made, is smart, funny and swooningly gorgeous (its color design suggests several luscious flavors of sherbet). It also explores bold new extremes of product placement: the Mattel corporation, which manufactures Barbie dolls, is also credited with helping manufacture the movie, the plot of which involves key scenes set in a fictitious version of Mattel headquarters.

In addition, a new collection of movie-related Barbie dolls and games is being introduced in tandem with the film.

Despite this symbiotic creative/commercial relationship, however, the picture manages to be subtly satirical as well—and, in its opening scene, an elaborate take on the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, kind of brilliant, too. (Unfortunately, the movie also indulges in occasional Hollywoodian social japery, as when Barbies are described as sexualized objects of “rampant consumerism,” or when one woman denounces the idea that corporations could have rights.)

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the central iterations of Barbie and Ken here, embrace their knowingly silly characters with total commitment. Robbie is a sunbeam of sweetness and determination, and Gosling, resplendent under blindingly blond hair, is her lovably clueless quasi-boyfriend. (When he suggests staying over at Barbie’s house one night, and she asks why, he says, “I don’t really know.”)

The story is cute, which is all that’s required. One day, Barbie’s feet, which are abnormally high-arched to facilitate the wearing of super-high heels, suddenly go flat. Unnerved by this first experience of standing on solid ground, she consults an older, rather battered Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon), who explains that this foot damage has been caused by a little girl out in the real world who’s been playing too roughly with her own Barbie doll. So, Robbie’s Barbie sets out in her pink Corvette, with Gosling’s Ken stowed away in the back, for a visit to this real world they’ve heard about. It turns out to be California, and as Barbie and Ken make their way through Santa Monica and Venice Beach on chartreuse roller blades, they learn about such real-world problems as sexism (horny guys on the loose) and the vaunted patriarchy (Barbie’s car radio will suddenly only play Ken’s favorite songs). Barbie also meets a girl named Sasha (Arianna Greenblatt), who hates playing with dolls, and her mother, Gloria (America Ferrera), who for her own part has fond memories of the Barbie she had as a kid.

In due course, Barbie also meets the CEO of Mattel (Will Ferrell), who’s enraged that a Barbie has escaped into the real world and dispatches his black-suited minions to track her down and put her back in her box. Throughout all of this, there’s more music than you might expect (by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt) and quite a bit of high-kicking choreography, too. The movie is unapologetically focused on women’s concerns, but it doesn’t feel anti-male. It’s just that women’s concerns are not often dealt with at such length (or so good-naturedly) in a straightforward mainstream movie. As one Barbie says in discussing the many Kens all around them, “It’s not just about the way they see us. It’s about how they see themselves.”


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