Queue here if you hate Barbie and are no fan of Mattel.

Myself, I abhor Barbie and Ken and everything they represent. My vision of Hell involves exorbitantly priced plastic crap and everything kitsch: from cowboy outfits with tassels to the colour “dayglo”. I hate toys peddling unhealthy lifestyles and even more unhealthy stereotypes. I hate unicorns and Trolls and Gonks and My Little Ponies. I dislike the exploitation of parents forced into the money trap.

Mummmeeeee… Can I have the Urban Assault Barbie with authentic Wagner Group Ken? Pleeeeeessssseeee!

I hate Barbie. I loathe Barbie. I despise Barbie.

And I think Barbie might well be the best film of the year and is already my shout for 2024’s Best Movie Oscar.

Not that I think it stands a chance of winning. Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon arrives in October and that three-and-a-half-hour epic is almost certain to prise the top award away from Christopher Nolan’s earnest three-hour biopic of Robert Oppenheimer. But make no mistake. Barbie is the unacknowledged masterpiece here; the smartest movie of the year pretending to be the dumbest. It is to 2023 what Taxi Driver was to 1976. Its visceral horror divides audiences. Lots of people simply do not get it.

So, when I say give Greta Gerwig the Oscar for best direction and another (alongside Noah Baumbach) for the year’s best original screenplay, I know that I’m going to be alone in my enthusiasm. The American Right accuse the film of being “woke” and contributing to the emasculation of male culture. Yet what Gerta Gerwig has created is the classic paradigm of the dystopia hidden within a utopia. It so wilfully plays with our expectations and prejudices that it sometimes gets a bit dizzying.  

Barbie is confusing because it might also be the most mischievously marketed film in recent history. I can’t think of a film that does such a good job of pretending to be something it isn’t. It’s gone big on the advertising gimmicks, appealing to parents and their kids with its ebullient pinkness. There have been Barbie boxes parked in cinema foyers for the past six months, encouraging people to have their photos taken posing as if they were Barbie. Children have giddily entered the cinema thinking (if they were capable of thinking this) they were about to have their childhoods defined. People have been encouraged to dress as Barbie, celebrate Barbie, and… well, be Barbie.

And then the film comes along and makes a point of saying how crass it all is, and how Mattel is a cynical grey machine churning out pink products (in a memorable scene, even the FBI is made to look like a better career choice). The film roundly condemns the incessant marketing and says that conforming to stereotypes, even those that ostensibly empower women, is not always a good thing. Not everybody should feel bad because they never became President of the United States Barbie or Astronaut Barbie or, crucially, even Barbie Barbie.

This is what many of the film’s critics seem to be missing. Barbieland is a hot seething hellscape of right-on political correctness, where men don’t know who or what they are. Moreover, even women don’t know who they are or what they are meant to be. Empowerment is simply liberating yourself from the political messaging. “Ken is me!” cries Ryan Renold’s Ken when his awakening finally happens, allowing him just to be… surprise… a regular guy. This film turns everything you expect on its head.

What Greta Gerwig has managed to do is make an indie film by stealth. After a garish opening sequence in which you might be thinking all the praise is misplaced, Barbie suffers an existential crisis. “Does anybody ever think about dying?” she asks. The film you think you were watching had run into a wall along with all those perfect noses and insufferable smiles. And from that moment, the film untangles the crumpled wreck of our expectations. We get a brilliant parody of Kubrick’s bone sequence in 2001. We get Will Ferrell playing the Mattel CEO whose demented ebullience makes him even more childlike than his customers. We get a “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), representing all dolls abused by monstrous children. We get rampant intertextuality and commentary on popular culture in a way that’s going to take multiple viewings to fully appreciate. How your average 9-year-old girl responds to jokes about The Fall’s influence in the post-punk landscape is another matter. It is also a provocatively wordy film, putting the kind of overbearing gender politics into the mouths of the lead actors in a way where it’s entirely aware of its preciousness, which it then proceeds to undercut.

“By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy you’ve robbed it of its power,” says Robbie at one point but not as a lecture. The film is far too self-aware for that. This is a film lampooning the earnest political diatribe as much as it mocks vacuous Barbie culture.

And that’s the real thing you need to know upon entering the theatre. Do you want a Barbie movie playing to the Barbie stereotypes? You’re not going to get that.

Do you want a Barbie movie that subverts the Barbie norms to make glib and ever-so-worthy generalisations? Well, hard luck. You’re not going to get that either.

What you are going to get is a film that plays into the complexities of modern life.

You also get Margot Robbie perfectly cast for being perfect (a point underscored at one point with a perfect interjection by the film’s narrator, Helen Mirren). It’s a shame that her perfection distracts from what is a neatly measured portrayal of a character who is almost unportrayable. She manages to be both personable and plastic in a role that requires a certain degree of mime to convey the artificiality of the character.

Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, is getting all the plaudits for his role as the insufferable Ken but his role is easy. He gets to be sexist, posturing, and preening, but always with a self-awareness that’s so overt, it’s all the more hilarious. America’s Right argue that Ken provides boys with a poor role model but that is precisely the point of the film; that there is something fundamentally wrong when toys are held up as role models when the education of our youth rests in the hands of a corporation.

The only quibble we might have is whether the film is as disruptive as it seems. How has a company like Mattel allowed this to happen? Have they been tricked or are they gaslighting us, playing along with the naffness of their product whilst also peddling more naff products?

The question, however, seems like a tacit acknowledgement of Barbie’s success. One wonders how disruptive its critics would want this movie to be before they could acknowledge its achievement. The best advice is to ignore those critics. Barbie is one of the best films of the year. Go see it if you think you’re going to hate it; avoid it if you ever thought you had it in you to love it.


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