Tuesday 1 August 2023


Toy giant Mattel is no stranger to live-action adaptations of its beloved brands. I fondly remember renting Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) as He-Man, on home video in a pre-streaming world. However, Mattel lags behind Hasbro's Transformers franchise on the big screen.

Enter Barbie. Is she the Iron Man of the Mattel Cinematic Universe spawning Barney and Hot Wheels spin-offs in an era where kidults (myself included) buy more toys?

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, gets pretty in pink to see if Barbie is plastic fantastic or destined for the pop culture bargain bin...

Guest post by Nick Smith

Great music relies not just on its memorable motifs and crescendos but also on those quiet moments in between, the pauses and hushed beats. These little gaps in the wall of sound add pace, structure and a moment to catch one’s breath.

The same can be said of other forms of art – negative space in a painting, transitions in literature, and the moments of stillness in dance.

Among all its jokes, costume changes, cameos and camera moves, Barbie’s at its best in its emotionally charged slower scenes: flashbacks and flashes sideways to the humans who play with Stereotypical Barbie, authentic slices of life with a tune that plucks the heartstrings. These are director Greta Gerwig’s forte and add depth to a story that, at times, gets very silly.

To get a full analysis of this summer’s pinkest blockbuster, I went to my local Regal cinema with Dana and Kelly, two friends who are both proud grandmothers. Dana is a Will Ferrell fan and Kelly had an original Barbie from the 1950s when she was a kid.

Would this modern take on a classic toy resonate with my female pals? Or would it only work for the rest of the audience in our movie theatre, who were ladies in the 18-25-year-old range coveted by Hollywood marketing mucky-mucks?

Barbie manages to do both, with modern, metacritical gags (Mattel is an antagonist in this movie, produced by Mattel) and an attention span short enough for TikTok teens, along with nods to classic Hollywood (ersatz backdrops, an outré musical number) and references to old toys for the blue rinse brigade.

It would have been fun to see more depth in those references – official, discontinued releases like Earring Magic Ken and Growing Up Skipper are thrown in for a quick laugh and don’t really have anything to do with the plot.

The film is strongest when we’re following a life-sized, human Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling). They live in Barbieland, a vast, brashly coloured playset where every day is the same until someone in the real world affects her well-being.

In Los Angeles, Barbie and Ken face ridicule as they search for the person causing Barbie’s existential angst. Barbie begins to experience emotions for the first time (wonderfully performed by Robbie) and Ken learns about our patriarchal society, the opposite of the Amazonian Barbieland.

By the time Will Ferrell turns up and acts silly, a lot is stewing in this plastic pot but Gerwig balances all the ingredients perfectly. As long as the film isn’t taken too seriously, it’s a lot of fun and the social commentary is never overbearing. The message of female empowerment has been spread before, but it seems fresh and unforced.

There are holes in logic, with Ken and his fellow Kens gaining knowledge out of nowhere for the sake of a joke. A Barbie b*tch rap by Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice (‘Barbie World’) doesn’t gel with Aqua’s ‘Barbie Girl’ song. At all. Talented actors such as Ncuti Gatwa (Doctor Who) aren’t given enough to say or do, and the opening sequence is its least original; Kubrick has been spoofed many times before, most notably by Mel Brooks and in The Simpsons.

Otherwise, the movie rarely takes a wrong step.

After the movie, I asked Dana and Kelly for their verdict. Dana didn’t get it. Kelly liked the nostalgia aspect – it reminded her of visiting her friends as a kid and playing with their Barbie accessories. Is it great art? Probably not, but it’s far better than any toy tie-in has to be, surpassing its source material, acknowledging Barbie’s feminist detractors and showing us a Dream House world of possibilities.

Have you seen Barbie? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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