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Don’t even try to put this ‘Barbie’ in a box

Greta Gerwig’s surreal satire starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling is one of this year’s best films.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

The film’s tagline is accurate: “Barbie” is indeed everything.

It’s a hilarious comedy; a musical filled with well-choreographed numbers; a paean to self-discovery; a biting, potentially divisive satire of patriarchal rules and women’s roles; and a visually stunning re-creation of the largest Barbie-themed playroom ever constructed. It is one of the year’s best movies.

“Barbie” is also absolutely bonkers — and I was 100 percent on board with wherever it took me. I sat in the theater beaming with a grin not even a bright-pink bazooka could wipe off my face.

Director Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach) uses the iconic Mattel doll created by Ruth Handler in 1959 as the catalyst for our adventure. It starts with Barbie (Margot Robbie) going about her morning routine: She awakens, waves to the other Barbies from her see-through house, takes a shower (with pretend hot water), and enjoys a perfectly toasted heart-shaped waffle, complete with a dollop of butter. She washes breakfast down with a glass of milk.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

Her outfits suddenly appear on her, and are immediately replaced in her closet by tomorrow’s ensemble. Then she flies off the roof of her house and drifts down into her convertible. As explained by the film’s occasional narrator (Helen Mirren in a wicked, droll performance), this is what happens when someone plays with Barbie. She never walks anywhere; rather, she’s picked up and placed where she’s needed.


Barbie Land is filled with multiple Barbies and multiple Kens. Robbie’s Barbie is the generic, original model referred to as “Stereotypical Barbie,” which suggests that the Ken that’s associated with her, played here by Ryan Gosling, would be ”Stereotypical Ken.” But nobody cares about Ken’s description, not even the film’s tagline, which tells us he’s “just Ken.” Whether he’s played by Simu Liu or John Cena, Ken is simply billed as “Ken.” Ken’s job is officially “Beach.”


Simu Liu as Ken in Warner Bros. Pictures' “Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

Meanwhile, there’s Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Journalist Barbie (Ritu Arya), Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), and President Barbie (Issa Rae). There’s even a Mermaid Barbie played by singer Dua Lipa. And since every civilization, imaginary or otherwise, needs a pariah, Barbie Land has Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), who looks like she had a run-in with Sid, the destructive little kid from “Toy Story.”

One day, cracks occur in Barbie’s perfect little life. Her waffle is burnt, the shower is somehow suddenly cold, and the milk is sour. She also falls off her roof and almost ruins a party by asking the other Barbies if they’ve ever thought about dying, an event that doesn’t happen in Barbie Land. Also, the absurdly inhuman arches in Barbie’s feet have flattened out.

Weird Barbie suggests Barbie learn the truth about what’s happening to her by journeying to the “real world.” There, she will be privy to many shocks, the first of which is learning that Ken has tagged along for the ride. (He’s been hiding in her back seat.) Barbie also discovers that, unlike in her world, where women are CEOs and scientists and make up the entire Supreme Court, the “real world” is male-dominated.

From left: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Ken, Ryan Gosling as Ken, and Ncuti Gatwa as Ken in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

The woefully neglected Ken also notices this reversal. The sudden surge in attention being paid to him simply because of his gender turns him from himbo to dudebro.


The presence of Barbie in the real world attracts the attention of a Mattel employee, Gloria (America Ferrera), whose daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), serves as the conduit for Gerwig to relay all the criticisms of Barbie you’ve heard before. Sasha even calls Barbie “a fascist.” These two human characters are given a much bigger role in the plot than I expected. And Ferrara gets a fantastic feminist monologue during the film’s climax.

“Barbie” appears to be about Barbie’s existential crisis, but the real surprise is how it deals with Ken. At first, he’s a secondary character, living in the shadow of a far more popular woman. The film brings Ken to the forefront by making him more complex than his vapid stare would indicate. Gosling is exceptional here, never losing sight of the comedy required to play a himbo while allowing us an emotional peek into Ken’s wounded soul. He even gets to sing the movie’s “I Want” song.

Robbie is equally good, especially in scenes where Barbie is discovering things about herself that she never knew. Her character is smarter than you might expect, and her scenes with Rhea Perlman as a mysterious old lady have a poignancy about them that sneaks up on you.

From left: Margot Robbie as Barbie, Alexandra Shipp as Barbie, Michael Cera as Allan, Ariana Greenblatt as Sasha, and America Ferrera as Gloria in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how pink this movie is. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures every shade of that color in Sarah Greenwood’s amazing production design.

Watching “Barbie,” I thought of other toy-related movies like “The Lego Movie” and “Toy Story,” and how they are stories told within the playtime imagination of male characters. The sequel to “Lego” even makes the idea of girls playing with toys a threat of sorts to boys.


Gerwig riffs on that notion, even reversing it. It’s clear that whoever is playing with her Barbie Land has a female perspective, one that becomes usurped midmovie in a plot twist that is not only absolutely insane, but allows for many jokes about men. (This movie will upset some guys, for sure.)

It’s up to the Barbies, the humans, and Barbie’s ally Allan (Michael Cera) to save the day. The use of the now-forgotten Allan, who was introduced as “Ken’s buddy” in 1964, is one of the movie’s more amusing jokes. Casting Will Ferrell as a slightly evil Mattel CEO is one of the few gags that doesn’t work.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

“Barbie” knows it can be construed as a giant Mattel commercial. Look at how it highlights Barbie’s outfits by having them stop in midair for product identification, or how even the discontinued Barbies have houses in Barbie Land. That self-awareness is part of the charm, along with the clever way the plot unfolds and the genuine love Gerwig has for her characters.



Directed by Greta Gerwig. Written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Alexandra Shipp, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera, Ritu Arya, Sharon Rooney, Hari Nef, Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, John Cena. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. 114 min. PG-13 (far tamer than what you did with your dolls)


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.