Greta Gerwig’s ‘bold, inventive’ Barbie breaks the mould

This ‘joyous’ comedy – starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling – is sure to be nominated for many awards, writes Nicholas Barber.

It must say something serious about the state of Hollywood that one of the most feverishly anticipated US films of 2023 is Barbie, an authorised tie-in to a range of plastic dolls. And it must say something even more serious about the state of Hollywood that Barbie fully vindicates that feverish anticipation. Yes, we have reached the confusing point in showbusiness history where a two-hour toy commercial is more satisfying than most of the other big-screen entertainment being offered this year. It’s not just a genuinely funny and warm-hearted live-action comedy – and there aren’t many of those around these days – but an art-house passion project so bold, inventive and politically charged that it is sure to be nominated for all sorts of awards. Barbie as a best picture nominee at the 2024 Oscars? I wouldn’t bet against it.

More like this:

– The real-life inspiration for Barbie
– Why is pink so controversial?
– Is this the worst Hollywood crisis ever?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. The film is directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig, who has progressed from zero-budget indie comedies to be the star and co-writer of Frances Ha and Mistress America, and the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Lady Bird and Little Women. Her co-writer (and partner) is Noah Baumbach, who made Frances Ha and Mistress America with her, as well as writing and directing such personal comedy dramas as Marriage Story and The Squid and The Whale. More significantly, he co-wrote Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, so he is a past master at taking an unpromising cash-in and elevating it to a sublime new level.

What is Barbenheimer and why should we care

Gerwig and Baumbach’s concept is that there is a magical land made of colourful plastic, where all the toys in Mattel’s Barbie range live as more-or-less real people. Margot Robbie is Stereotypical Barbie: as she happily acknowledges, she is the fashion-conscious blonde you first imagine when you hear the word Barbie. It’s perfect casting. As well as being the film’s producer, Robbie is irresistible as a character who is admirably intelligent yet sweetly naive – and, of course, she looks a lot like an actual Barbie doll. Some films struggle to know what to do with her superhuman gorgeousness. But in Barbie, the fact that she is “really, really, really ridiculously good-looking”, in the words of Derek Zoolander, is emphasised and commented on with sly postmodern wit.

Not that looks alone are what matter in Barbieland. There is a President Barbie (Issa Rae), a Physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey), and lots of other Barbies, all of them cheerful and fulfilled, with high-flying careers, well-stocked wardrobes, and sparkling pink Dream Houses. The Kens, on the other hand, are vaguely aware that their only purpose in life is to stand next to their more famous counterparts – rather like the heroines in a typical Hollywood film – a situation which is becoming more and more upsetting for the Ken played by Ryan Gosling. His only job, he grouses, is “Beach”. Not surfing, not lifeguarding, just “Beach”.

Then Barbie begins to have uneasy feelings, too. She interrupts a disco party to express her thoughts about mortality. Her feet have always been stuck in a tip-toe position so that she can step into high-heeled shoes, but the morning after the party, they become as flat as normal human feet. Her fellow Barbies inform her that she is malfunctioning, and that she must consult the witch-like Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon: she is the Barbie who has been played with so much that she has pen marks on her face and hair that looks like it’s been hacked at by a toddler. Weird Barbie sends Stereotypical Barbie off to the real world, with Ken coming along for the ride, so that she can find the girl who owns her, and work out why the girl’s gloomy thoughts have rubbed off on her. One nice touch is that the inhabitants of Barbieland know that they’re connected to dolls being played with by children in reality, but they’re blithely fuzzy on the details. Another sharp joke is that the part of the real world visited by Barbie and Ken is Los Angeles, which is almost as unreal as the place they came from. Nonetheless, they soon make a discovery about this other realm that appals Barbie and inspires Ken: here, men are far more likely to have important jobs than women.


Director: Greta Gerwig

Cast: Margot Robbie; Ryan Gosling; Will Ferrell; Emma Mackey; Michael Cera; America Ferrera

Run time: 1hr 54mins

Release date: 21 July


The zany, joke-packed fish-out-of-water farce keeps a grin stuck on your face, almost as if you were a classic Barbie or Ken yourself. Gosling’s clowning is especially enjoyable. As in The Nice Guys, and the Saturday Night Live sketch about Avatar’s logo, he is energetically committed to making a fool of himself. Still, the scenario does seem familiar at first. Essentially, you’ve got the sentient playthings from Toy Story, the relentlessly upbeat figurines from The Lego Movie (Will Ferrell appears as a villainous businessman, just as he did in The Lego Movie) and you’ve got the magical innocent abroad from Enchanted and Elf (yes, Ferrell was in that, too).

What’s so pleasing about Barbie, though, is that Gerwig and Baumbach waste no time in racing through the scenes you might anticipate and on to scenes you wouldn’t. Their exuberantly eccentric fairy tale has some of the dark, angst-ridden surrealism of Charlie Kaufman (Mattel’s offices are reminiscent of Being John Malkovich) and the meticulous eeriness of Stanley Kubrick. It has a sequence from an epic rock opera, and a dream ballet from a Gene Kelly musical. It’s a subversive history of Mattel’s often questionable product development, and an unbridled satire of sexism and patriarchal oppression. Some younger viewers – ie, those who are still at prime Barbie-buying age – may be puzzled, but Gerwig, with her usual sincerity, ensures that it is always a joyous comedy.

In fact, she and Baumbach may have tried to cram in too much: most obviously, there are three or four endings too many. But it’s easy to forgive these excesses, because Barbie is one of the few recent Hollywood films to have more to them than is given away in the trailer, and one of the few that come across as complete, self-contained stories, rather than attempts to set up a long-running series of sequels. It may be a comedy about a mass-produced plastic doll, but Barbie breaks the mould.


Barbie is on general release from 21 July.

Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, WorkLife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *