There is a hackneyed saying that goes: if you feed them, they will come. And in the case of Pavilion Kuala Lumpur on the evening of the Barbie movie premiere, a literal pink carpet was rolled out to welcome the city’s social scene, many of whom have been left ravenous by morsels of teasers being churned out by a multi-million dollar marketing strategy following positive initial reviews.
As we arrived at the scene, it was clear that while sales figures for Mattel‘s trademark doll may have ebbed over the years, in no small part owing to the adoption of digital technology among an increasingly young audience, the cultural impact that the brand has had for over 64 years is insurmountable.
The name Barbie still resonated clearly across a veritable chasm in generational gaps, whether it be trigger-happy social media personalities in millennial pink dos or tiny tykes who appear star-struck at the turnout of so many, many Barbie dolls at Dadi Cinema, who hosted the premiere event.
Our review of: Barbie
In any case, we were all brought together under the same banner that evening: Barbie, the movie. Co-written by filmmaker Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, this marks Gerwig’s third directorial effort following Lady Bird and Little Women. Needless to say, after 40 or so animated entries in the franchise’s movie history, the degree of hype surrounding the film’s release was truly astronomical.
Was it justified? Well from the palpable electricity of excitement that the audience shared during the first scene, which pays a comical homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Dame Helen Mirren narrating the dull, dreary life of dolls before the advent of Barbie, it most definitely felt like it.
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Dollhouse living made large
Let’s get one thing right out of the gate: the Barbie movie is most definitely not geared toward children. If anything, it feels like a homecoming for all the girls (and boys) from decades past who have grown up with the doll and its imagery, now seeking refuge from the shockingly dull, dreary monotony of the daily grind with two hours of cinematic fantasy.
To that end, the film excels in leaps and bounds through production quality. With almost no amount spared for the sake of recreating that ‘plastic-perfect’ nature that one typically associates with dollhouses, the world of Barbie was brought to life as your childhood imagination would demand it to be.
Barbie Land is very visibly a soundstage, with painstakingly painted backdrops and plastic, mid-century modern furniture galore. The pool, food in the fridge, the pavement, and the streets are very clearly vinyl decals. Needless to say, the food is also plastic. No detail was too small for the production team to get right on set, and it very clearly shows.
This extends to the fashions, of course. Archival looks from past iterations of Barbie were featured, along with a substantial sponsorship by Chanel. Avid sartorial enthusiasts will no doubt spot a familiar accessory from Spring 1995 at some point during the film. There’s no dispute between Barbie movie review discussions that visuals are the movie’s high point, encapsulating the Barbiecore aesthetic in vivid perfection.
A little hollow in some parts
Strip away the pink gloss and viewers will no doubt appreciate Barbie for its sense of self-awareness and frequent breaking of the fourth wall. In fact, narrator Dame Helen Mirren even goes so far as to refer to lead actress Margot Robbie by name during the film. Other Barbies also pick up on real-world cultural touchstones, such as Colin Firth’s titillating role as Mr Darcy in the BBC Two classic, Pride and Prejudice.
Beyond those little ‘aha!’ moments, naturally comes the commentary on the modern-day gender movement, especially in the context of gender anxieties. Barbie Land is an idealised feminist fantasy, where gender binaries are clear and women rule the world. From commerce to entertainment to waste management, all sectors of life were attributed to a specific Barbie and everyone lived happily ever after.
Except for the Ken dolls, of course. Very early on, it is quickly established that Barbie‘s male counterpart is only ever meant to play second-fiddle to her stardom and it provides a very easy segue into a discourse on male fragility.
Unfortunately, here is where the film visibly falters with its on-the-nose, show-and-tell approach to a varied range of incredibly nuanced subject matters. This is especially true of how the strife of a modern woman is depicted through the lens of a worn-out archetype: the haggard professional working mother played by Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, who shares a strained relationship with her daughter.
And speaking of the mother-daughter duo, the younger of the two is portrayed as once again, a cliched grungy, rebelliously contrarian Gen Z teenager who despises what Barbie represents: unattainable beauty standards, bimbofication, and consumerism. Oh, you’ll be hearing the words ‘patriarchy‘ thrown around a lot for good measure too. All this before we even get to discussions surrounding consumerism and existentialism.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with making bold statements, the execution here feels far too literal in many cases, which can appear to satirise the discourse that Barbie appears to want you to ruminate on after leaving the cinema. What’s more, its attempt to shoehorn as many characters into a reel under 2 hours long leaves many character arcs feeling a touch undercooked, as other Barbie movie reviews indicate.
This is all wrapped in a cinematic parallel with the Wachowski sisters’ sci-fi classic, The Matrix. Seasoned fans from the 2000s franchise will recognise homages to Morpheus, the red pill blue pill choice (illustrated by a pump and a pair of cork sandals), and even the Oracle herself, interspersed throughout the film.
But the right Barbies and Kens sweeten the pot
Thankfully, the stellar ensemble cast more than makes up for it, with Margot Robbie delivering 10s across the board for her performance as the Barbie we all know and remember by heart. Channeling great verve, she imparts an amount of emotional depth to an otherwise perpetually smiling plastic face that would have left a lesser actress out of her depth.
With that said any reservations that one may have for Ryan Gosling‘s casting as Ken have now been effectively cast aside. Leaning into campy humour at every opportunity, his versatility as an actor shines with his incredible comedic timing and overexaggerated theatrics that somehow skirt the edge of melodrama without tumbling down the pits of deep cringe.
Oh, and did we also mention Simu Liu‘s incredible dance numbers? Because he’s incredible.
All in all, our Barbie movie review ends on a high note. It’s an easy movie to love and recommend for fans of the franchise who are in it to revel in their childhood fantasies and live out their lives as full-sized dolls. Asides from a very literal commentary on the state of womanhood and the patriarchy as well as some weak character arcs, the fantastic casting and production easily tip the scales over for a fabulous blockbuster hit.
Feature and hero image credits: Barbie the Movie, Warner Brothers
This story first appeared in Lifestyle Asia Kuala Lumpur