So, as I was watching Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach) I couldn’t help but wonder what the Mattel executives were thinking the first time they were watching it. Mattel, the maker of Barbie and other toy lines like Masters of the Universe, obviously want to start competing with their rival, Hasbro (Transformers, G.I. Joe), at the box office. In particular, there’s a scene set in the “real world” as Barbie (Margot Robbie) tries to find her owner, when a young woman named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) explains in no uncertain terms to Barbie that she is a menace: That everyone hates Barbie, she has set feminism back 50 years, and has set the standard for unrealistic body expectations. I truly wonder if Mattel signed up for “shrewd, biting, and hilarious cultural commentary about their product.” Or, if they even realized, of course, that’s what they were going to get with Gerwig and Baumbach involved. (I could list 30 filmmakers right now off the top of my head who would be, from Mattel’s point of view, “safe” choices. These two are not on that list.) To the point, throughout the film’s running time, I just kept thinking to myself I can’t believe this exists and I can’t believe they got away with it.
I also keep imagining parents taking young children to this movie and just being delighted by this idea. For instance, there’s a scene where the Kens wage war against each other over the control of Barbie Land. Ryan Gosling’s Ken wages a Saving Private Ryan-type beach invasion against the other army of Kens, using tennis rackets and volleyballs as weapons, that leads to a huge, trippy choreographed dance number against the leader of the other Kens (Simu Liu). I’m just imagining the, “Hmmm, this isn’t quite what I expected,” face who may have assumed there wouldn’t have been an all-out beach invasion that leads to a dance number. Or direct references to Robert Evans.
Honestly, I’m kind of in awe of Barbie and I would love to read the meeting notes of every conversation Gerwig had with someone at Mattel.
When we first meet Barbie she’s living in Barbie Land and everything is perfect. She lives in her Dream House and spends her day on the beach hanging out with all the other Barbies, who, together, run the government and day-to-day operations of Barbie Land under President Barbie (Issa Rae). The Kens primarily exist to win the attention and affection of the Barbies. One particular Ken, the one played by Gosling, his entire purpose in life to to impress Robbie’s Barbie. However, Barbie begins to have an existential crisis and doesn’t understand why this is happening to her. She visits the wise “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon, who owns this role) who explains Barbie is feeling this way because of the relationship with her owner. She must travel to the real world and find her owner.
Along with Ken, they do travel to the real world and Barbie does find her owner, Gloria (America Ferrera), who now works at Mattel and has handed Barbie down to her daughter, the aforementioned Sasha. But at the same time, Ken is exploring the real world and, excitedly, discovers that men seem to be mostly in charge and starts reading books about the patriarchy and discovers he really likes all of this. So Ken sets back off to Barbie Land to tell the other Kens what he’s learned and to also rule Barbie Land himself. Barbie, Gloria and Sasha travel back to Barbie Land, too, setting up a showdown with the Kens. Gosling plays this all with such glee. Gosling as, let’s say, “confident” Ken is just a delight. There’s a scene in which he asks Barbie if he can play a song “at” her. Then breaks out a four-hour version of “Push” by Matchbox 20.
Make no doubt about it, Barbie is a very weird movie. One I enjoyed very much. And quite possibly the weirdest studio movie I’ve ever seen based on a product that another company is very much still hoping to sell. (I truly imagine some sort of urgent phone call at some point, “Um, yeah, so we have some notes about the CEO of Mattel character?”) I can’t get over the fact that Will Ferrell plays the CEO of Mattel as a bumbling oaf who loves tickle-fights. I’ve already seen the comparisons to Ferrell’s Lord Business from The LEGO Movie, but Lord Business is not the actual CEO of LEGO, proudly introducing his all-white guys Board of Directors. I would suspect this was the trickiest of characters, considering the corporate gymnastics involved. This results in Ferrell’s character being a big fan of Barbie (which, alright, she does make him a lot of money), but it’s also clear Barbie needs to stay in Barbie Land, so this does allow the movie to have a chase scene.
Again, I can’t believe Gerwig got away with this. And that’s not to say there’s no love for this character – there obviously is – but it’s not often we get this amount of social commentary squeezed directly from the company that licensed the movie. And I don’t want to make it sound heavy-handed. I saw this movie somewhat early in the morning after a night of little sleep and I legitimately laughed out loud at least ten times. I truly don’t know what audiences expecting a straightforward Barbie movie will make of all this. But I, for one, hope Warner Bros. and Mattel let Gerwig and Baumbach make five more of these.
‘Barbie’ opens in theaters everywhere this week. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.