We're All Now Living In a Barbie World
It's easy to look at Hollywood's need to turn every property into movie (or show, in fairness) as a great failing. "How much artistic merit can be derived from a movie based on an action figure?" And, really, there's been enough terrible movies to prove the point. G.I. Joe from 2009? Or maybe Battleship from 2012? Does that mean we're one step away from a Stretch Armstrong movie? (And also, yes, that has been in development). Toys-to-movies sounds like a bad idea and, by and large, despite the success of Transformers, it has been bad.
The counterpoint to this argument: Barbie. While at first blush it might seem like a terrible idea to make a movie out of the line of toys -- the number of terrible direct-to-video Barbie movies, and the bad Barbie games, is astounding -- but that ignores the talent in front of and behind the screens for this adaptation. In fact, considering how long it took to get this film off the ground, and the number of creatives attached over time, it's pretty impressive that the studio, Warner Bros., got a solid team together to make a real, earnest, fantastic comedy. We just have to hope that's the lesson they take away from this film's success.
The movie focuses, as you'd expect, on Barbie (Margot Robbie). She is, in fact, the Stereotypical Barbie, the one that everyone thinks of when they think "Barbie". Her life is great, with days spent waking up before heading to the beach, tries to see the government in action, and then dance parties at night before sleep-overs cap it all over. And then they do it all again the next day. And the next. The perfect life for the perfect Barbie as she represents everything she thinks girls want (and want to be).
But then something weird happens: Barbie has an off day. He breakfast is burned, her magic that lets her float to the ground doesn't float. Her feet become flat. She's supposed to be the magical Barbie but she doesn't feel at all magical. So she goes to visit Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), the doll that was played with too hard. Wired Barbie knows the secrets of the universe and she tells Barbie that our stereotypical doll is feeling wrong because her owner out in the real world is feeling bad. The only way to fix it is for Barbie to travel to the real world to visit her own and help her fix what's wrong in her life. Only Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling) ends up tagging along, and while Barbie is visit her owner Ken finds out all about the real world, wanting to make changes to Barbieland that could ruin everything in both worlds.
As noted, this film had a troubled early development. Production took 14 years with Mattel pairing first with Universal, and then Sony, and each studio struggled to find the right angle, the right story for Barbie. It was only when it moved over to Warners and and Robbie joined on early, bringing development to her production company LuckyChap Entertainment, that things finally started moving. She approached Greta Gerwig to write, and soon direct, and the film from there was able to take its shape and become a billion dollar smash.
Bringing on Gerwig was, no doubt, and inspired choice. The director had, up until that point, worked on smaller, independent films, like Nights and Weekends, Lady Bird, and 2019's Little Women. In fact, up until Barbie, Little Woman was the biggest films Gerwig had ever worked on, with a budget of $40 Mil. Clearly she knew what she was doing, even on a film with a budget three times that amount, as she approached the material with assurance, giving a solid directorial eye to the material, no matter (or because of) how silly it was on its face.
The film does play with the silliness of its own material, knowingly winking and nodding at the audience at times and it lets the weird Barbie-magic infiltrate the whole story. barbie floats to the ground from her dream house because that's how kids play with the toys, just magically moving them between floors. barbie rolls around in her car, hands off the wheels, because the kids push the car for her. Everything about her, her motions, and her character (and the Barbieland characters around her) reflect the knowing, child-like magic of the dolls.
Barbie uses this to craft a film with a very strong, feminist message. The Barbies rule the world in Barbieland because its a world built for them. The Kens, meanwhile, are just arm-candy, there are decoration for the lives of the Barbies. But once Ken makes it to the real world and discovers a land where men have more power (all the power), he starts thinking that maybe this is how Barbieland (Kenland?) should be. He brings back word of "the patriarchy" and starts brainwashing (and gas-lighting) everyone in the land to let the Kens rule while the Barbies are subservient. And, of course, Barbie has to fix this too.
The simple way that ken takes over lets the film comment on the sexual power dynamic in our own world. Plus, yes, it is funny. I mean, the whole film is really funny in general, but the social commentary tucked into the goofy, silly film makes it bite that much harder. And it gives women a film that speaks directly to them and what they deal with all the time (the film isn't subtle about this and it doesn't have to be). It's commentary for them, and it works. Clearly. To the tune of $1.433 Bil at the Box Office, making it the biggest film of the year (so far, and likely with the end of the Summer Blockbuster season it'll hold that title for 2023).
The thing is it would be hard for Warners to make a second Barbie film that's as smart, biting, and funny as this one. Gerwig (and her writing partner, Noah Baumbach) is great and I'm sure if she comes up with an idea for a sequel it will be solid. But you do feel, watching this film, that every good idea that could be done with the character of Barbie was done here. The film ends in such a way that any need for a sequel is precluded. If a sequel were green-lit it would probably be successful but would it be as good as this? I have my doubts. With that said, I think a sequel absolutely should happen. Theaters are flooded with shitty, male-focused movies all the time. Good or bad, more female-focused movies are needed and a great flood of them would be a good thing.
The real question is whether Warners will learn the right lesson from their success. Will they see that female-oriented films tapping into their viewpoint and their nostalgia can work? Or will they say, "hey, toys-to-film is a winning sector. Bring on the Joes and the dudes from MASK!" Considering the cynical nature of Hollywood, I expect the latter. But maybe I'm wrong and Midge will get her own movie next. That, I think, is what we really need.