|Worth seeing:||for Will Ferrell's Mattel boss, Ryan Gosling playing against type and a handful of pointed insights on gender relations|
|Featuring:||Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Will Ferrell, Alexandra Shipp, America Ferrera, Ana Cruz Kayne, Andrew Leung, Ariana Greenblatt, Connor Swindells, Dame Helen Mirren, Dua Lipa, Emerald Fennell, Emma Mackey, Hari Nef, Helen Mirren, Issa Rae, Jamie Demetriou, John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Lucy Boynton, Michael Cera, Ncuti Gatwa, Nicola Coughlan, Rhea Perlman, Ritu Arya, Rob Brydon, Scott Evans, Sharon Rooney, Simu Liu, Will Merrick|
|Released:||21st July 2023|
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
When doll Ken (Ryan Gosling) visits the real world, he realises that back in Barbieland, men are suppressed, held back and used by the women – or Barbies – that rule the roost.
In the real world, for the first time in his life, he feels respected and taken seriously. When he returns home, he decides to try to bring a bit of real-world patriarchy to Barbieland.
When the Barbies realise that the Kens are asserting their rights, they devise a devious plan to exploit male weaknesses and trick the men into restoring women to the positions of power.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
You might not see the plot to Barbie summarised like this elsewhere – there is, of course, stuff about Barbie herself having to go to the real world to fix her flat feet – but that’s basically what it’s about at its core. On one level, it could be regarded as a piece of bubble-gum entertainment, based on the adventures of the eponymous children’s doll and her male counterpart, Ken, who visit the real world and come away with very different experiences that make them question their existence.
But on another level, it’s a feminist fable about overturning the patriarchy – not with equality, but with female dominance.
“Welcome to our world,” I can hear a chorus of women screaming – it’s not that I don’t have a sense of humour – it’s that once we’ve seen both Barbie and Ken for the first time, we’ve got the joke.
To its credit, there are a handful of amusing moments, some sharp observations about gender roles in society and a few entertaining performances – Will Ferrell as the boss of toymaker Mattel, Ryan Gosling as the put-upon Ken and Margot Robbie as the title character are all worth watching.
Visually, Barbieland – and the portals that take the dolls to and from the real-world – are arresting; bold, pink and highly stylised – a cinematic reflection of the popular toy and its accessories. Robbie also does a good job of mimicking the physicality of a doll, from time to time.
But narratively, we’ve been there before – many times. It attacks the patriarchy by flipping it on its head and saying “See how you like it,” rather than Margaret Attwood’s approach – in The Handmaid’s Tale – of laying bare the abuse of women. Comedic and surreal it may be, but as a satire, it’s tame by comparison to the Two Ronnies sketch series The Worm That Turned from 1980. The fine line that women walk, between wanting to be attractive for their man – but not so attractive that they attract other men, is neatly depicted in a monologue by America Ferrera’s doll-owner but it doesn’t feel particularly surprising and it’s a rare moment of reflection that narratively would have felt more revelatory coming from Barbie. And the idea of toys having their own life, separate from their owners, is done far more effectively – smoothly – and believably in Toy Story.
There’s a song-and-dance number too many and it throws around many of the same ideas again and again. It eventually gives up on satire, ending up one-stop short of a simplistic fairy-tale ending, while sending its protagonist to an unexpected – but wholly illogical – place.
The one interesting idea at the heart of the film is the extent to which something which was designed to empower women arguably propagated the pre-existing prejudices – but by considering a perfectly valid sociological debate against the backdrop of a nonsensical musical fantasy, any intellectual element dissolves to the extent that makes its 12A certificate misjudged. Any meaning will go over the heads of younger viewers, but it’s too childish to tackle real issues head-on.
Women might find it life-affirming. Men are more likely to find it hateful, insulting and boring.
I’m a man. Or perhaps in this context, a Ken.