Playful toy story

The Plot: It’s just your average, cheery day in Barbieland – or so it seems. Barbie (Margot Robbie) goes about her daily routines, communing with the other Barbies, Kens and one Alan (Michael Cera). Two Kens in particular: lovelorn Ken (Ryan Gosling) and rival Ken (Simu Liu). Lovelorn Ken dotes on his Barbie and only his eyes for her. Barbie isn’t quite feeling herself today though. She has doubts about her identity and blurts out concerns about death to her friends. Confused, she consults weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) who strongly suggests that she enters the real world to find out what’s going on with her human owner…

The Verdict: Films based on toy lines can often seem like extended product placements, urging you to rush out and buy the latest one for fear of missing out. Worse still, mixing two toy lines in the vain hope of reviving ailing film franchises that have outrun their usefulness (looking at you, Hasbro). Maybe they should all have a word with Greta Gerwig, who has done something quite different with her feature film adaptation of Barbie. Yes, there’s some product placement but done so in a cheeky and satirical manner (pregnant Barbie?) which makes this Barbie more pointed and observed. Either Mattel gave her great creative freedom to poke fun at the 64-year-old doll or they were in on the joke and at least have a sense of humour about their pride and joy. Corporations can often be soulless entities, but it’s reassuring to know that this Barbie comes with something partly fresh out of the box.

It’s an attractively-packaged box too. A lot of the film’s charm comes down to the script by Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, though Gerwig’s voice is more pronounced. At first, it felt like an odd proposition. The quirky writer/director of Lady Bird taking on a big corporate summer movie, but she brings a distinct flavour to the proceedings which is atypical of what one might expect. Casting older actors in the leads for one and skewing the script more towards adults than children is another (the closing line might provoke confused looks from children and an awkward discussion with parents). The satire can be quite barbed (Barbied?) at times, even breaking the fourth wall with Helen Mirren’s sparse but mildly amusing narration. Margot Robbie’s model is the original stereotypical Barbie who has an existential crisis, breaks into the real world and is almost shoved back into her box by the Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell), who doesn’t want to deal with the possibilities of what this crossover means.

The first act is quite brilliant in its world building, all bright colours and cheerful characters but with the kind of tone that is playful and funny in equal measures (think The Lego Movie). Things get a bit murky and confusing later on though, as the second and third acts can’t quite maintain that momentum. Initially, it looks like it might be an emotional story of a doll and her real-world owner, a la Toy Story. That would be a powerful way to build a bridge between the two worlds. However, Gerwig confusingly gives up on the idea after the first act and instead pursues increasingly silly antics involving lovelorn Ken (a game Ryan Gosling) launching his own mini-revolution with the other Kens. Characters flit back and forth between the two worlds with little impact on their character development. A doll out of her box story becomes simply a doll story with changing outfits and environments. Fine perhaps, but there could have been so much more here. The humour becomes more blunt as a result, losing that satirical lightness of touch that worked so well early on.

Barbie then is one part brilliant and two parts OK, making for an oddball but still quite accessible sweet confection that could only come from the mind of Gerwig. While there is frustrating lost potential in the script, there’s enough goodwill in the humour and spot-on performances (Gosling is a hoot) to spur it on to become a box office hit and cultural talking point. One way or another, it will be hard to ignore Barbie for the next few weeks.

Rating: 3 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

Playful toy story
Barbie (UK / USA / 12A / 114 mins)

In short: Playful toy story

Directed by Greta Gerwig.

Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, Kate McKinnon, Will Ferrell, Michael Cera, Helen Mirren.

Playful toy story