Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Barbie (2023)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!  Yes, my years-long trek toward viewing every Best Picture nominee continues for the fourth Oscars season (286 out of 601 as of now)....


Catching up on some of the 2023 summer fare I missed (trips to the movie theater are sadly all too few and far between these days), I finally took a gander at the year's top blockbuster Barbie.  Directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig (with her husband Noah Baumbach), this monumental smash-hit pulled in over $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office and alongside The Super Mario Bros Movie and Oppenheimer, became part of the first triumvirate of films since 2001 to top the charts without a sequel among them.  Granted, two of the three are based on well-known toy/game properties, but it's a start.

But all that is neither here nor there, is the film any good?  Yes, quite actually.  Starring an absolutely magnetic Margot Robbie as "Stereotypical Barbie," Gerwig's first popcorn movie is rife with her signature biting sense of humor and quick wit, but also plenty of valuable social commentary.  

The film opens with an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with narrator Helen Mirren explaining how for generations girls' dolls were designed with one objective: to help prepare their target audience for motherhood.  They were dolls modeled after babies and toddlers, and playtime consisted of little future homemakers caring for pretend offspring.  But with the advent of Barbie in 1959, suddenly girls were given a new type of role model, the impossibly statuesque career woman - Barbie could be a doctor, an astronaut, an athlete, etc.  And in a perfect world that would've been enough to create equality among men and women.
But as the film explores in its second act, the world isn't perfect, and equality is still very much a work in progress.  After some highly detailed, visually delightful Barbieland world-building (in which the dolls are being controlled by offscreen children's hands in the real world), Robbie's character begins to experience negative thoughts, she develops morning breath, her feet suddenly go flat, and her perfect fantasy existence starts to crack.  She consults Weird Barbie (the incomparable Kate McKinnon), who explains that everything Barbie thinks and feels is just input from her real-world owner, and the thoughts of death she's having indicate a rift between the two worlds.  Her mission is to find the child who's playing with her and repair the damage before it spreads to all of Barbieland.

Accompanied by one of the Kens (a hilariously dopey Ryan Gosling), Barbie travels to the real world and finds that her "owner" is a disillusioned middle schooler named Sasha, who blames Barbie for setting women's equality back decades due to her impossible body image.  Not only that, but Sasha's mother Gloria is actually the one who's been playing with the doll and thus creating Barbie's newfound existential crisis.  

Meanwhile Ken, distraught over not being seen by Barbie as a romantic interest, discovers that the real world is built around a patriarchy and decides to return to Barbieland and remake it as a masculine dictatorship, full of macho cowboy imagery and beer fridges.  By the time Barbie, Sasha and Gloria return to Barbieland, the Kens have fully taken over and made all the Barbies into subservient girlfriends, sparking a power struggle between the sexes.

This material is handled with mostly lighthearted satirical charm, and while the messaging can get heavy-handed at times, it doesn't overpower the comedy.  Barbie also doesn't "hate men" as so many insecure online trolls claim, rather it seeks to make men aware of the privilege society has afforded them over the centuries (There's a late moment when one of the Kens asks if a few of them can be added to the all-female Supreme Court and Barbie replies "You can be on one of the lower courts, maybe someday you'll make the Supreme Court."  See how it feels, Ken?).  Gosling's Ken, driven throughout the film by a lack of purpose without being attached to Barbie, finally realizes he can find meaning without being her love interest, while Barbie herself decides she wants to be more than just a child's toy and returns to the real world.  

The film's message is ultimately about discovering one's identity and fulfilling our potential, regardless of gender roles.  What a positive lesson to sneak into a toy-inspired summer blockbuster.

I give Barbie *** out of ****.

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