As a writer and director, Greta Gerwig (whose best work is done behind the camera) has a history of making movies with strong messages of female empowerment, including the Oscar-nominated features “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.”
So, you can imagine the concerned murmurs that preceded the release of her latest movie “Barbie” (Warner Brothers), a live-action fantasia revolving around corporate toy giant Mattel’s legendary doll, especially since the notoriously litigious Mattel is one of the film’s producers.
You can all exhale now because “Barbie,” while far from perfect, is an unexpectedly delightful breath of fresh and campy air with a reasonably well-delivered feminist message. Co-writers Gerwig and her life-partner Noah Baumbach have crafted a visually captivating, alternately hilarious and serious, musically-driven summer entertainment that will have as much appeal to adults (especially those in the LGBTQ+ community) as it will to the younger set (although guncles should avoid taking nieces and nephews under the age of 13 to see the movie).
Beginning with an inspired homage to the opening of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” featuring narration by Helen Mirren (who pipes in, sometimes hysterically, throughout the movie), followed by a fabulous Lizzo number that sets the tone for our arrival in Barbieland. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie, in a role she was born to play) rises and shines in her Dreamhouse and begins her day with greetings from the multitude of Barbie citizens. Representing all walks of life, these Barbies (including Dr. Barbie played by trans actor Hari Nef) are self-sufficient wonders to behold.
In addition to the Barbies, Barbieland is populated with a veritable Ken smorgasbord, led by bleach blonde and beachy Ken (Ryan Gosling and his abs and pecs). He’s as obsessed with Stereotypical Barbie as his best buddy Allan (Michael Cera at his deadpan best) is with him. His rival/buddy Kens include those played by Kingsley Ben-Adir and Simi Liu, to name a couple.
Life is good for Barbie as she tools around in her vintage pink and white Corvette, until it isn’t. To her dismay, she’s suddenly preoccupied with death and her tiptoed feet have gone flat. Sent for guidance to Weird Barbie (scene-stealing queer actor Kate McKinnon), called that because she represents the Barbies abused by their human owners. In order to find the source of her trouble, at the risk of life and injection-molded plastic limb, Barbie must venture into the real world. Unbeknownst to her, Ken who can’t stand the thought of being apart from Barbie, tags along.
Unfortunately for both of them, Ken’s exposure to human males, ranging from the gay couple that cruises him at the beach to the Mattel CEO (played by Will Ferrell) has a negative impact on him. Before you know it, he’s a raging testosterone monster (funny for someone without testicles).
Meanwhile, Barbie discovers the source of her trouble – a kind of psychic link to the Mattel CEO’s depressed secretary Gloria (America Ferrera, whose female-empowering monologue is worth the price of admission) and her moody and super-smart daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) – leading to wacky pursuits and big dance numbers. There’s also a showdown, involving deprogramming, in Kendom (the temporarily rebranded Barbieland).
As with so many current movies, “Barbie” is at least 25 minutes too long, giving viewers the impression that Gerwig simply didn’t know when and how to end it. Regardless, anyone looking for an alternative to the testosterone-fueled mayhem of the latest “Mission: Impossible” and “Indiana Jones” flicks will find escapism with a message in “Barbie.”
Gregg Shapiro is the author of nine books including the poetry chapbook Refrain in Light (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.