Discover more from All the Fanfare
The Barbie Movie is the Wildest, Weirdest Blockbuster I Have Ever Seen
Life in plastic, it's fantastic
Light spoilers for the movie.
It should be said upfront that I am not what you’d call this movie’s core demographic. Though I was a child when toy companies first realized they could use cartoons as long-form advertising, and this film is sort of a weird celebration of that time. The closest I ever came to playing with Barbies was when my G.I. Joes politely invaded my step sister’s Dreamhouse.1 I also owned some of the old school DC Superheroes figures, the 8-inch ones with partially removable clothes, so I was familiar enough with the whole Barbie concept.2
And then I had a daughter, and I learned how to properly play Barbie. Which mostly involved trying on outfits, the occasional meal, and chatting. Sometimes we’d take a short cruise in the pink convertible or a dip in the pool, but that was mostly just a short interlude. Everything always circled back to outfits. It was basically a trip to the mall, including trying not to look bored.
Never miss a post—it’s free!
During these times, Ken was my lifeline. My daughter inherited my wife’s collection, and thus, had several Kens in the pile. There was one Ken in the bunch that I gravitated to. He had blonde hair and a surfer vibe. I called him Calia-fornia Ken. He said stuff like “brah” and “gnarly”. Never wore a shirt or shoes, still expected service. I thought he was hilarious.
My daughter hated him.
She had no interest in interacting with him. Sometimes she’d let him ride in the convertible—in the backseat, only—but mostly she’d peel out and leave him stranded.
All this came rushing back as I watched Barbie. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is my Calia-fornia Ken.3 A blonde surfer doofus who inadvertently—and then, purposefully, out of boredom or frustration—ruins everything. Ken has some of the funniest parts of the movie—his rivalry with Simu Liu’s Ken, as well the beach scene where their animosity comes to a head—but he’s also the worst part of the movie. I felt annoyed pretty much any time Ken was the focus. I wanted Barbie to be about Barbie. I wanted it to be about girls and dolls and girl power.
And it is. But it’s also super freaking weird.
Barbie has a lot to say and it doesn’t try to bury the lede. This is a movie where the patriarchy is propped up as the Antagonist. Which makes sense, and it even works. America Ferrera’s impassioned monologue had me wanting to stand up and cheer.4 But some of it feels heavy-handed and clunky. Then again, how many blockbuster movies can you name that are unabashedly feminist, that rail against the status quo so boldly? And maybe heavy-handedness is a feature. I’d much rather my daughter hear the message proclaimed loudly and unequivocally than have that messaging get lost in translation because it communicates via subtext.
Mixed in with the messaging is some of the silliest stuff I’ve seen in a movie, which makes for a strange stew. Barbie has dance sequences, including one that somehow transcends the mortal plane due to the sheer masculine force of the Kens, and occurs in heaven or limbo, or maybe in The Matrix’s loading program. Kate McKinnon plays a Barbie after someone like Sid from Toy Story got his hands on her. Michael Cera is the only non-Ken male doll, and has an extended fight sequence, which feels especially bizarre if you are familiar with Cera at all. Neon yellow rollerblades are a plot point. Barbie is a kaleidoscope—colorful, mesmerizing, confusing. Things happen, for reasons that aren’t explained or explored. But getting hung up on why defeats the purpose. As Harrison Ford once told Mark Hamill while working on the first Star Wars, “it ain't that kind of movie.”5
I’ve yet to mention Margot Robbie, who plays the titular character in a sea of Barbies. Robbie is the best part of the movie. She is Barbie. Bubbly, friendly, confident. Watching her, I recognized the doll my daughter used to play with. Not just because she’s blonde and beautiful. Barbie was always more than just her looks. She was a blank slate upon which a girl could project their hopes and dreams. Robbie is the manifestation of that ideal, and she shines.
Back when my daughter played with Barbies, I thought it was just about playing dress-up with a dizzying assortment of clothes. I missed that it was really about agency, and freedom of choice. About dreams. Maybe if I’d realized, I would’ve been less interested in the antics of Calia-fornia Ken, and more in what Barbie was doing.
Barbie is a weird movie. The messaging gets muddled with all the zaniness, and it never lands as strongly as it wants to. But the ride is unforgettable.
The Joes were all gung-ho to kick down the door, but the Barbie’s chill vibe mellowed them out in a hurry. I believe they sat down for a meal before going to see what Cobra Commander was up to.
The concept, of course: Get the dolls naked and look with some interest at the rounded plastic bits. I can only assume Superman’s trousers were affixed to his skin to prevent the trauma of boys everywhere discovering that Superman didn’t have a penis.
Apart from one key point: Calia-fornia Ken had no enthusiasm for the patriarchy. He was more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
She will always be Ugly Betty to me. If you know, you know. Still, that’s an unfortunate moniker to bear.
Mark was concerned that his hair was dry in the scene immediately after they escape from the trash compactor, and that they’d lose the audience due to lack of continuity.