Barbie (2023) – Film review by Andrea Carnevali

Barbie ⭐️⭐️½

Barbie suffers a crisis that leads her to question her world and her existence. Out in cinemas now.

I had been waiting to see this film since the first glimpse of the very first teaser trailer from what now feels like light years away. The film seemed to have the right amount of self-awareness, kitsch style and overall madness to make it one of the most intriguing blockbusters coming out in the summer. On top of that, the sight of goddess-like Margot Robbie as the perfect (and yes, stereotypical) Barbie and the hunk-like figure of bleached-haired Ryan Gosling cemented in my mind the idea that this was going to be a lot of fun and one not to miss.

A lot has been made in the press about Barbenheimer recently: the release of Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day, which with other films still out there, like Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible and Elemental, made it one of the most crowded week-end in cinema history, since Ghostbusters vs Gremlins in 1984, or The Bodyguard vs Aladdin in 1992 or even Mamma Mia vs The Dark Knight in 2008.

As my expectations were so high, I was bound to be disappointed and to be smacked in the face with a big reality check.

Also, the fact that some of the best jokes and scenes had all appeared in the various trailers and short sneak-previews on the internet, as part of the gigantic (and very successful) marketing campaign, surely didn’t help either toward my enjoyment of this film. But I’m willing to put that aside, as I realise that is mostly MY problem and not one inherent with the film itself.

After an extended version of that “2001” moment in the teaser trailer, the film finally starts in all its pink-kitsch-technicolour glory.

The introduction of Margot Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie as she goes about her day in the idealised Barbieland in the first few minutes of the film, is delightful. The beautifully rendered world, sprinkled with candy-coloured childlike imagination (cinematography and production design are top-notch!), was undoubtedly a lot fun, but even that felt like it went on for a little bit too long.

And that was generally a recurrent issue throughout the whole film: each individual set-piece, whether a mad action scene or a joke, a musical number and crucially (especially) those monologues (more about those later), always felt to me always a little bit too long and they constantly outstayed their welcome.

I realise I find myself in a very hard place here. I’m a man, discussing a film about the position of women in society, their role, their empowerment and the patriarchal system that, according to the film, still rules the world. (“patriarchy” is a word which so overused in the script that after a while I wanted to shout at the screen “I get it! Please, move on!”).

I want to be straight, I am absolutely able to appreciate films with a feminist agenda, in fact I have loved many of them in the past. Whether classics like The Colour Purple, Thelma and Loiuse, or animation like Disney’s Moana, or even the 2019 version Little Women by the same director Greta Gerwig, all the way through to Women Talking, another film which certainly didn’t scream ‘subtlety’, but was undoubtedly very powerful.

Barbie uses the conceit of a place where Barbies exist alongside our real, world, as a satire about our society today and while that is a noble intent, the way it goes about doing that is incredibly heavy handed, mostly adopting a “tell, not show” approach throughout, hammering things at the audience.

At some point one of one characters literally says: “You represent everything wrong with our culture. You destroyed the planet with your glorification of rampant consumerism”.

It quickly turns into a much cheaper #metoo rant, with heavy-handed TED lectures (worst of all a preachy speech at the end, by the maker of Barbie, which is possibly the lowest point of the film) and cheap point-scoring monologues about sexism, women’s inequality and lots of other cliched man-bashing stuff, a lot of which feels at least a decade too late.

While of course I strongly agree with the sentiment behind and that a lot work still needs to be done, to completely deny that there has been a significant variation across all industries and that women are already represented in many leadership positions (especially in big corporations, which are careful about inclusion, equity, diversity, sustainability all the rest) is just misleading, wrong and doesn’t really help the argument.

Instead, the film depicts Mattel itself as a place where half-idiotic men in suites rule and there’s absolutely no place for women if not for secretary forced to wait in a corner.

Will Ferrell’s character and the CEO of Mattel is possibly one of the weakest characters and every time the film reverts back to him, I couldn’t help but rolling my eyes for how cheap it felt.

The film is clearly only interested in advancing its own agenda and everything that’s against it is disregarded all together.

And yet, it’s ironic a movie that hates men so much and generalises them all as only interested in cars, sports and watching films like The Godfather and other masculine clichés, seems to mostly come alive when the character of Ken shows up. Wonderfully played by a fully committed Ryan Gosling, Ken is unable to define himself apart from Barbie. This was an inspired idea which unfortunately is only half developed.

The character of Barbie, also beautifully brought to live by Margot Robbie, is pretty much paper-thin. Ironically there is a lot more bite in her quick appearance in Toy Story 2, than in two hours in this movie. And let’s not even mention all the side-characters, which are so undefined that they end up being just vessels for speaking lines that nobody really ever speaks.

There are admittedly some inspired touches throughout the film and I don’t want to appear like I’m dismissing it all, but they are mostly undermined as the film constantly grinds to a halt to rant about something, and mostly by the inability to tell a coherent story which makes sense and could be followed by a child too.

It is indeed strange that a film about a doll played with by mostly under tens is used for to tell a story which actually alienates children altogether. This is certainly not a film for families with kids. Despite some musical numbers and some truly crowbarred in and rather pointless action moments, Barbie is aimed at adults only, please be aware. All the kids in my screening were utterly bored, with one of them spending more time walking around the auditorium than actually watching the film.

Barbie does not have the skills or subtlety of many of the Pixar films for example, to be able to tell a multi-layered story, full of visual flair, which can be compelling, exiting, fun and at the same time can speak to different people from different generations, giving each of them something.

The story makes no sense, the idea of people travelling backward and forward from the Barbie-universe to our world has no rules, and overall it all seems just like a big excuse to advance Gerwig’s arguments.

The film possibly oversells itself and seems to want to do it all and be everything. From a whimsical, fantasy pastiche, full of life and colour to a deep discourse about the struggle as a woman, which it ends up pontificating about. All this commentary can be clever, smart, but if it’s not integrated within an interesting story with properly fleshed out characters then after a while it all gets a bit boring.

There were certainly ways this could have been rendered. Think of the Truman Show and the message it managed to bring, still making us invested in the story and in Jim Carrey’s emotional journey. Here in Barbie, I was left pretty cold to Ken’s search for an identity, or Barbie’s conflicts and loss of bearings.

Even the scene where she cries feels detached and unearned. On a side note, there is a funny joke at that point, breaking the fourth wall and commenting on Margot Robbie being the wrong actress to play that part – a cheeky way to look at the shortcomings of the film, I guess. Though pointing out the possible faults without actually solving them is not a way out.

I know I’m in the minority here and I’m sure many people will like it more than I did, but I stand firm in saying that, with all the talent behind this, it could have been a lot funnier, a lot sharper and mostly a lot more subtle.

But I know, we are still talking about a Barbie film after all, not about suffragettes or anything more serious than that, so I shouldn’t take it too badly…

And if you do end up feeling like me, then you can always revert back to Oppenheimer, which hopefully will show you what Cinema with a capital C really is (more about that in my next review).