Movie Review: Barbie's Brian Hogan gives his take on the new Barbie film


Born and raised in Kenosha, Hogan graduated from local schools and earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-Parkside, and has been a CPA for over 25 years. He enjoys golfing, going to the movies and theater, reading, and is a big fan of the Brewers and Packers, but mostly he loves being with his large, extended family.

When it was first announced that a full-length, live-action film about the ubiquitous children’s doll Barbie was in production, I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes and sighed, imagining some silly enterprise along the lines of a Smurfs movie.  So many great ideas about events and people that could be made into a movie, and this is what Hollywood is producing? Even after finding out that the talented Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) was directing and that it was starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, I had my doubts. What could you do in a movie about Barbie? As it turns out, there is quite a bit that you can do with Barbie, and Gerwig and team have delivered a film well beyond what I imagined. But you know those TV commercials where the wife is amusingly understanding of her idiot husband? Imagine that in feature length and you have some idea of the movie Barbie.

What begins so promisingly, with an inspired satire of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then immediately pivots to the fictional Barbieland, a tour de force of art direction and production design (they might as well just hand them the Oscar now), and establishes the funny ground rules for this very pink and plastic imaginary world, rather quickly devolves into a cliched worldview that fails to fully capture the complications of modern life, which is rather a disappointment for a movie I think had greater designs.

Robbie stars as Stereotypical Barbie (from here on out, I’ll just refer to her as Barbie), the statuesque, blonde bombshell who is the titular heart of a female paradise, populated by many other Barbies, including President Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Doctor Barbie, and so on. You can also find there many different Kens, but unlike the Barbies, the Kens don’t seem to have any particular use or purpose, other than to idolize the Barbies. The main Ken is portrayed by Ryan Gosling, who is forever frustrated in his desire to be the only Ken to Barbie. It is this thwarted desire that is the primary source of the laughs in this first part of the movie, and Gosling is an expert at milking them.  Then one day, Barbie has a dreadful thought – death. This thought begins to totally upend her world, so she seeks wisdom from the only logical source in Barbieland – Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, terribly wasted) who is the manifestation of all those Barbie dolls which were mutilated by their human owners. Weird Barbie tells Barbie that only thing she can do to reverse the terrible things happening to her, like flat feet, is to go to the real world and find the little girl who is transposing these thoughts onto her. So, Barbie sets off, with Ken an unwelcome stowaway. What Barbie finds in the real world, which the Barbies had always imagined was a female paradise much like their own, is instead a male-dominated, patriarchal society in which women are subservient and men are entitled. Fine so far, but at this point the movie began to break down for me. Not so much that the real world was portrayed as patriarchal; I don’t have an argument with that notion. But what I did have a problem with was that Gerwig and Baumbach fell into tired tropes in trying to make their point, and in so doing, insulted not just men but women. In the real world, and in Barbieland, which is soon transformed by Ken once he returns with patriarchal ideas, men are preening morons and women are easily brainwashed stooges who are more than happy to go along to get along. Are thousands of years of patriarchy really boiled down to this? We live in a complex world, full of many different personality types. There are dominating males and submissive females, yes, but there are also many very healthy male-female relationships with shared decision-making, innate trust and deep affection. I have been a boss to women and had women as bosses, and I can say quite certainly that they were neither fragile nor hard, but fully realized, complicated people. And the men I have known in my life run the gamut on the emotionally mature scale. If you are really going to discuss patriarchy, and try to understand and triumph over it, I think it lazy to fall on easy notions instead of trying to drill down into the marrow of the issue and expose it’s true foundations.

And then there is Mattel. Mattel, of course, is the company that manufactures and markets the Barbie doll and is a producer of this film. Mattel has been profiting for decades off its objectification of a particular female body type, which has been linked to poor mental health for generations of young girls. I found it quite audacious that they would begin the film (with that brilliant 2001 allusion) with a declaration of their role in making little girls dream of all they could be. And while the film certainly pokes fun at Mattel and it’s male-dominated board of directors, let’s just say that Mattel is laughing all the way to the bank. As a film Barbie is all over the map. It wants to play it straight with polemicizing speeches, as satire with wicked asides, and as farce with comical slapstick. It’s ambitious, but it ultimately doesn’t work as these various strands keep undermining each other. Just as you are contemplating the movie’s arguments, someone falls over a cubicle. Just as you laugh at a comical image, someone makes a speech.   At the beginning of this article, I alluded to being skeptical of a Barbie movie. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that this Barbie really got me thinking, and any movie that does that is a small miracle, but I think the filmmakers fell back on easy marks instead of giving us a nuanced argument.