“Barbie” tells a different kind of ‘Toy Story’…


I don’t go to the movies much these days. The COVID pandemic reinforced my natural introvert tendencies, and after buying a digital projector, my wife and I have spoiled ourselves rotten with theatrical-looking movie nights right at home. However, this past Sunday was “National Cinema Day,” where most movie theaters across the US were offering $4 seats all day.  That was too good to pass up.  So my wife and I, along with a good friend of ours, headed down to our local multiplex to give “Barbie” a look. The screening itself wasn’t so great, as we sat next to a family of loudly-chatting texters, which made my wife and I instantly remember why we prefer movies at home.  Hey, we tried.

On National Cinema Day, August 27th 2023, movies across America were $4 a seat (day or night). Too good an offer to pass up, even if the theatrical experience was a lot shabbier than I remember. Personally, I find watching movies at home on my digital projector far more immersive these days.

Clocking in under two hours, “Barbie” seemed less of an endurance test than the three-hour “Oppenheimer,” which I’ve decided to see digitally-projected at home, given my aging bladder (forgive the TMI). It was interesting to see “Barbie” with two former Barbie owners as well, who gave me some insights into the gestalt of Barbie afterward. While I was more of a MEGO Planet of the Apes/Star Trek doll (correction: ‘action figure’) collector, I’m well aware that the iconic Barbie dolls are a rite of passage for many generations of young girls, as well as kids of all gender identities.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” (cowritten by Noah Baumbach) takes older audience members back to that time when imagination was the only limit to creating worlds of our own with these little plastic avatars…


In a hilarious nod to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” 1959’s Barbie acts as the monolith–the first mass-marketed doll for girls that wasn’t a baby to nurture.

The movie opens with a clever homage to the “Dawn of Man” sequence from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as we see drably-garbed young girls playing with baby dolls in a prehistoric African wilderness. Narrator Helen Mirren drily tells us that young girls had few options for dolls before Barbie burst onto the scene in 1959—arriving like the alien monolith of “2001,” as the little girls cautiously touch her giant plastic leg.  We then see shots of these same girls smashing their baby dolls in rebellion, just as Kubrick’s early hominids smashed the bones of animals with their newfound bludgeon weapons. 

Note: As a longtime fan of “2001” (one of my favorite movies of all time), this homage was sublime. Shot-for-shot it was perfection, right down to the girls smashing their baby dolls to Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” 

“Valley of the Dolls.”
When she saw the breadth of her domain, Barbie wept, for their were no dream houses left to conquer…

We then get a glimpse into the alternate matriarchal reality of Barbieland; a dimension created and powered by the imaginations of children as they play with their Barbie doll collections, which include side characters (“PJ,” “Skipper,” “Allan”) as well as discontinued models, such as the forever pregnant Midge (Barbie’s former bestie). There is also a lone outcast known as “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon); a Barbie doll who was played with a bit too roughly by her human child overlord, leaving her traumatized and disfigured.  Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) sees every new day as perfect. Rising every morning to eat her imaginary breakfast, drink her imaginary juice, and defying gravity as she glides about her Dreamhouse, guided by her child’s unseen hands.

Note: The incredibly detailed and imaginative production design by Sarah Greenwood will no doubt be nominated for an Oscar; it’s so tangible, you can almost smell the fresh plastic of new toys everywhere.

Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) plays peacemaker between Ken (Ryan Gosling) and his rival, er, Ken (Simu Liu).

As Barbie gives us a tour of her world, we see her Barbie sisters (of all colors, creeds and sizes, reflecting the current toy line) holding all leadership roles, from an all-Barbie Supreme Court to a Barbie President (Issa Rae). In Barbieland, the great authors are all Barbies, the pilots are all Barbies, and the astronauts are all Barbies  One thorn in Barbie’s paradise is her noncommittal relationship with Ken (Ryan Gosling), who—like Barbie—is but one Ken of many different models. The insecure Ken wishes to be more than just Barbie’s occasional arm candy, and seeks a commitment from her.  But Barbie is too busy being Barbie, while’s Ken’s career is defined as “beach,” which means simply hanging out at the beach—not lifeguarding, or anything useful, just…beach

Note: Before anyone blows a gasket at the unfair gender reversal in Barbieland, remember that this imaginary universe is being created by little girls as a safe place free of the sexism and artificial limits imposed by the all-too real patriarchy of our universe.  When children play with toys, they aren’t limited by the rules of reality—they’re free to go wherever their imaginations take them, fair or not. 

It’s always “Girls’ Night” at Barbie’s DreamhouseTM

Later that night, Barbie is holding another one of her dance parties (a nightly ritual), where even the president herself can boogie on down with the rest of the Barbies.  The Kens are in attendance, as is “Allan” (Michael Cera), another semi-forgotten spinoff doll like Midge, who remains in Barbie’s orbit.  As they dance, Barbie suddenly has a random thought of her own death and says so aloud—and the dance party screeches to a halt.  Barbie tries to recover by saying she’s just dying to dance.  The party is saved, but Barbie is still troubled by that random thought of mortality creeping into her plastic head…

Note: In Barbieland, the President has no need of a Secret Service detail, though I expect if she did, they’d all be Barbies as well.

Ken (Ryan Gosling) finds his plastic existence empty without Barbie (Margot Robbie) to define him.

After the party, Ken isn’t quite ready to say goodnight, as freewheeling Barbie can’t understand why he won’t simply go home like the rest of the guests. Ken offers to spend the night with her, but Barbie doesn’t understand why.  She eventually talks him into leaving and giving her some space.

Note: Barbie’s failure to understand Ken’s desrire is exactly how a young girl might not fully understand, since this universe is generated from a child’s perspective.  Ken’s pining for Barbie is hardwired into him, since his identity is defined solely by his proximity to Barbie.

Fear of Flatfoot.
To the horror of her fellow Barbies (Ana Cruz Kayne, Sharon Rooney, Alexandra Shipp, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey), Barbie reveals her suddenly flattened arches…

The morning after the party, Barbie awakens to some new and disturbing sensations. She has morning breath, and her normally arched feet fall flat to the floor.  She then discovers a foreign substance developing on her once-flawless thighs—a substance known to most mortals as cellulite.  At the beach with her fellow Barbies (Sharon Rooney, Ana Cruz Kayne, Alexandra Shipp, Hari Nef, Emma Mackey), an embarrassed Barbie shows them her now-flattened feet—with which she’s almost unable to walk.  

Note: Barbie’s inability to walk with normal flattened arches reverses that old cliché of a character being unable to walk in heels (see: 1982’s “Tootsie” or a million other movies).

“You must choose…but choose wisely.”
Kate McKinnon is ‘weird, creepy Barbie,’ a world-weary Barbie who’s been played a bit too roughly by her real-world girl.

With nowhere else to turn, the other Barbies suggest she seek out Weird Barbie, who lives alone in a bizarre, asymmetrical version of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. Arriving to see her, Barbie is terrified at the sight of Weird Barbie, whose face has been drawn on, and whose legs are arranged in a near-permanent case of the splits (as many kids sadistically enjoy putting their new Barbies into that position). Weird Barbie has an answer to Barbie’s newfound woes. Barbie needs to go into the real world and seek answers from her human child. Asking how, Weird Barbie tells her to drive her Dream car to the edge of Barbieland, then take other imaginary transportation through Barbie-versions of the sea, outer space, and the great outdoors to eventually rollerblade her way into Venice Beach, in a mysterious “country” called California.

Note: Weird Barbie’s distorted version of Barbie’s dream house would be right at home in a Tim Burton movie.  Comedic genius Kate McKinnon is perfectly cast as the choppy-haired, frightfully disheveled Weird Barbie. Her presenting Barbie with the choice of pumps (Barbieland) or Birkenstocks (reality) is a cute riff on the blue/red pill dilemma from “The Matrix.” Like Neo (or Yoda), Weird Barbie is the ‘portal’ character; the often-eccentric being a protagonist has to consult in order to complete their quest. 

Stalker Ken stows away on Barbie’s quest to find her child in the real world… and unwittingly upsets the balance of Barbieland.

Barbie then hops into her Dream car and drives outside the boundaries of Barbieland, only to learn that Ken has stowed away in the backseat!  Screaming and losing control, the car flips in midair, only to land safely on the side of the road (of course). Barbie reluctantly agrees to let Ken tag along. Asking Ken if he brought his rollerblades, he says he never leaves home without them.  They resume Barbie’s surreal, Homeric odyssey to Venice Beach…

Note: Stalking is not a good look, Ken…

Barbie and Ken find themselves in Venice Beach, California…where their clothing wouldn’t get a second glance from locals.

As they rollerblade onto Venice Beach, Barbie and Ken have their first encounter with denizens of the real world, as a man grabs Barbie’s ass.  Barbie responds by punching her groper, landing her and Ken in jail.  Soon after they’re freed, they’re arrested once again for shoplifting some truly bizarre western garb. Once again, Barbie and Ken are released, as the store owner decides to let them keep the ugly-as-sin clothing.  With Ken left in the city on his own (bad idea), Barbie continues her quest to locate her human child.  Meanwhile, Barbie’s presence in the real world has triggered alarms across Mattel headquarters; the real-world toy company responsible for the entire Barbie line. The Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) mentions a prior escapee from the Barbie dimension years ago, and he’s determined to capture Barbie at all costs…

Note: Mattel personnel in the movie are not only trying to make money, but they act as self-appointed guardians between the realms of Barbieland and reality (quite a responsibility for a toy company). Interestingly, this very modern screenplay diligently uses a few classic tropes of hero’s journeys, such as portal characters and guardians between realms (like Heimdall in Norse mythology, remaining vigilant against invaders into Asgard). In that way, “Barbie” reminds me a bit of 1977’s “Star Wars,” which told an old-fashioned Arthurian Knights tale through a modern sci-fi filter.

Never meet your idols.
Barbie introduces herself to her child, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her cynical classmates.

Working at Mattel is a receptionist named Gloria (America Ferrera), mother to a tween daughter named Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt).  Sasha is Barbie’s current child user, after she inherited the doll from her mother.  Finding Sasha at her school, Barbie arrives at lunchtime expecting a hero’s welcome, but Sasha and the other girls cynically dismiss the brightly-costumed interloper as a lunatic. Barbie is heartbroken to realize the girls don’t play with Barbies anymore, and are resentful of Barbie’s artificial beauty standards.  Barbie is then captured by Mattel’s men in black, who take her to Mattel HQ.  Meanwhile, malcontent Ken has discovered the concept of patriarchy—a concept he wants to introduce into Barbieland…

Note: The bright color palette of surreal Barbieland contrasts sharply with the gloomier color palette of the ‘real’ world. Unlike the neon-pink Barbie, Sasha and her classmates are all wearing dark and muted colors. The Mattel executives wear dark suits as well, but with splashes of bright, Barbie-like color (hot pink neckties, for example) that seems to signify their awareness of Barbieland’s existence.

Will Ferrell plays the Mattel CEO who oversees the entire Barbie line, as well as the boundaries between reality and Barbieland.

At Mattel HQ, Barbie meets the executives, some of whom seem a bit starstruck to meet the actual Barbie in ‘person.’  Getting down to business, the CEO offers to solve Barbie’s existential dilemmas of flat feet, cellulite and morning breath by ‘repackaging’ her back into a large box—a factory reset, which will make her like new again—eliminating all of her newfound awakenings as well.  At first Barbie seems nostalgic by the aroma of the box, until she realizes what the executives are trying to do.  She escapes and makes a run through the building, avoiding the Keystone Cop-like executives, who constantly trip over their own feet during the pursuit…

Note: A literal representation of society seeking to ‘box’ a free-spirited woman into the narrow parameters of a gender-defined role. The metaphor is explicit perhaps, but no less appropriate.  This attempted-boxing scene also reminded me of the character “Al McWhiggin” from “Toy Story 2” (1999), who seeks toys only as valued collectibles—negating their true purpose as active partners in a child’s fantasy life. 

Rhea Perlman plays the ghost of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler (1916-2002).

During the pursuit, Barbie finds herself on an abandoned floor of the Mattel building, where she meets the kindly ghost of the late Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), Barbie’s real-life creator. After that revelatory encounter, Barbie exits the building, where she gains an unexpected ally in receptionist Gloria, who gives Barbie a lift as they outrun Mattel’s men in black. Daughter Sasha is in the car as well, and she’s surprised to see this new side of her mother, who impulsively agrees to take Barbie back to Barbieland with Mattel’s executives in hot pursuit. It was Gloria, absently playing with Sasha’s discarded Barbie doll, who gave Barbie her first feelings of mortality, cellulite, and other concerns of real-life womanhood.

Note: The usually feisty Rhea Perlman (“Taxi,” “Cheers”) is cast against type as the wise, almost saintly spirit of Barbie’s late creator, and it works. This is why they’re actors, right?

A toxic Ken gloats after poisoning Barbieland with a near-fatal dose of testosterone.

Gloria, Sasha and Barbie soon arrive in Barbieland, where Barbie is horrified to learn that Ken has already introduced patriarchy to the formerly matriarchal society.  Ken has rechristened Barbie’s former Dreamhouse as the “Kendom”; a place now plastered with big screen TVs, horses, bad music, and tacky athletic wear.  They’ve also managed to brainwash all of the Barbies into subservient roles, with an all-Ken ruling class.   Barbie finds she’s immune to the Kens’ brainwashing, thanks to her time spent in the real world.  As Barbie tries to turn Ken back from the ‘dark side,’ she finds her jilted, wannabe boyfriend relishes his newfound power and rejects her truce offer.  Barbie also learns the Kens are taking a vote the following day to permanently enshrine male dominance into their constitution.

Note: Barbie’s arrival in the upside-down “Kendom” version of Barbieland reminded me of Dorothy Gale’s return to a dystopian Emerald City in 1985’s underrated “Return to Oz,” or Marty McFly’s return to the alternate “Biff-horrific” version of 1985 in “Back to the Future 2” (1989).

Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her mother Gloria (America Ferrera) enter Barbieland, where Gloria tells the Barbies of the trials and tribulations of being a real, flesh-and-blood woman.

With Barbie depressed and ready to give up, it’s Gloria who gives a highly motivating speech about the struggles of women in the real world; the speech ends with Gloria telling Barbie, “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”  Humbled and inspired by Gloria’s plea, Barbie is spurred into action. She manages to discretely deprogram her Barbie friends by reminding them of their former identities. In addition to Weird Barbie, the freed Barbies find they have an ally in Allan, too…  

Note: Gloria’s speech is perhaps the best definition of modern womanhood I’ve ever heard in a summer blockbuster movie. It’s a defining moment of the movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a clip of it played during next year’s Oscars ceremony during the Best Screenplay nominations. Also worth mentioning that the helpful Allan’s name is very close to ‘ally’; a word that’s become a shorthand suffix in modern parlance as one who assumes the cause of others as their own. 

Is there a Doctor in the house?
Combatants Ken (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Ken (Ryan Gosling) and Ken (Ncuti Gatwa), played by a future Doctor

Reunited, the Barbies realize they’re fighting a ticking clock. They have to distract the Kens long enough to prevent them from voting to permanently change Barbieland’s constitution the following day.  The Barbies plan to accomplish this by stoking jealousies among the Kens, causing them to fight.  At an evening beach party, Barbie pretends to be under Ken’s sway as he (and all the other Kens) serenade their respective Barbies with the same terrible song strung on their guitars.  Putting their plan into action, the Barbies begin to switch partners during the party, which prompts immediate rivalry. The Kens’ squabbling rapidly escalates into a call for war

Note: One of the (many) Kens is played by actor Ncuti Gatwa. Gatwa is slated to be the next “Doctor Who,” after David Tennant finishes his brief double-dip in the role when the series returns in November. Gatwa will make “Doctor Who” history as the first openly gay male actor to play the role. 

The Barbies, ally-Allan (Michael Cera), Gloria and Sasha retake Barbieland as the Kens make war, not love.

With the distracted Kens too busy playing war at the beach (with improvised and utterly useless weapons), they forget all about their important vote to solidify their power within the constitution (“That was today, wasn’t it?”). As the Kens continue to pointlessly fight among themselves, the Barbies and Allan slip back into the capitol of Barbieland…

Note: The Kens’ ‘war’ also includes a choreographed “West Side Story” homage as well. While the movie has many messages about disenfranchisement, there is a still a lightness and joie de vivre that prevents “Barbie” from being too leaden with politics. Yes, “Barbie” is a political movie, but it’s also lighthearted and camp, too. First and foremost, “Barbie” is entertainment.

President Barbie (Issa Rae) and the reinstated Supreme Court Barbies reign over Barbieland once again.

After the Barbies and their allies retake Barbieland, President Barbie is reinstalled as leader, along with the former Supreme Court.  However, being at the receiving end of a power imbalance has changed the Barbies, and they reach out to the formerly disenfranchised Kens to make amends.  They also realize their cruel exclusion of Weird Barbie and apologize to her, as well.  The reinstalled government of Barbieland vows better treatment and representation for all. Barbie and Ken then apologize to each other, but Ken still feels empty without Barbie to define his existence.  Barbie encourages Ken to create his own identity, free of hers. Ken embraces this newfound concept of self-realization. 

Note: Interestingly, Barbie does for Ken what her widened range of dolls now do for young girls; opening their worlds by inspiring them to realize their dreams.

Barbie forsakes her plastic existence for a shot at being human in the real world–gynecological exams and all.

Still unsure of where to go with her own life, Barbie herself remains unfulfilled. Once again, she is met by the ghost of her creator, Ruth Handler. As they walk through a nether-dimension together (as you do), Ruth tells Barbie that her story has no ending; it’s a story of continual evolution.  With that, Barbie chooses to live in the real world. She says goodbye to her Barbie friends, as well as the pursuing Mattel executives, who’ve abandoned their quest to capture Barbie.

The coda sees Barbie renaming herself Barbara Handler, after Ruth’s daughter.  A nervous, excited Barbara is now dressed in more muted, real-world business casual clothing as she’s wished luck by Gloria and Sasha in her first step towards being a real woman—a trip to the gynecologist’s office.

The End.

Note: What better way for Barbie—er, Barbara, to begin her journey towards true womanhood, right?

The Backlash

Much of the backlash against the movie’s unapologetic social commentary seems to be coming from those who haven’t seen it, or from those who’d probably miss the point if they had. “Barbie” is about trying to square a child’s fantasy world with the painful reality of our own universe—one which is still largely dominated by dogmatically-defined gender roles.  If you doubt this, take a look at Afghani women living under the Taliban, who are currently unable to go out in public without a man, let alone get an education. Or those states in the US which are rapidly reversing bodily autonomy for millions of American women, leading to forced childhood births and increasing birth mortality rates for new mothers.  

Issa Rae is “President Barbie,” who ruled over Barbieland until Ken introduces patriarchy into this once-harmonious fantasy state.

Going into the movie with an open mind will cost nothing more than a few bucks and a couple of hours. If that price is too high?  Then by all means, enjoy “Oppenheimer,” where you can see how a real-life man struggled to create weapons of mass destruction over the course of three hours. Or any number of movies where fantasy men in body armored-suits use various superpowers to reshape the world as they wish.

Not every movie is for everyone, and that’s okay, too; “Barbie” has made well over a billion dollars without its detractors’ support.

Summing It Up

Colorful, imaginative, well-acted, and with a stunning production design by Sarah Greenwood, “Barbie” defines its titular toy’s purpose with unexpected depth and insight. Greta Gerwig has crafted an artificial world so ‘real’ that you can almost smell that childhood aroma of new plastic from a freshly opened toy, as you remember the anticipation that followed. However, “Barbie” is not a children’s movie; its themes and ambitions are decidedly adult.

Toy Story, Too.
The surreal and amazing production design recreates a doll’s reality in macro-scale. You can almost smell the plastic.

“Barbie” examines how a toy’s existence is shaped by its owners, and vice versa. Barbie herself has evolved over the past 64 years from a glamorous swimsuit model to eventually encompassing every career, creed, ethnicity and role model imaginable. The dolls reflect our ever-changing culture (sometimes awkwardly) by steering the doll away from shallow glamour stereotypes (as personified by the earlier version of Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie) to all makes and models of womanhood, including a President Barbie (Issa Rae). That colorful, joyous celebration of reifying childhood dreams is perhaps the doll’s—and the movie’s— greatest accomplishment. 

Ken (Simu Liu) and the other Kens settle their warring ways, “West Side Story”-style.

There’s a good reason “Barbie” has grossed over a billion dollars in one month; it’s saying things that need to be said, while smartly weaving them into a breezy, colorful ode to childhood dreams and playthings. It’s in that cusp between childhood and one’s tween years where almost anything seems possible. “Barbie” tells adult women to never lose sight of those possibilities—even while making an appointment with the gynecologist. 

As Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) observes of Barbie’s transition to reality, eventually an idea becomes tangible enough to make its own existence possible

Where To Watch

“Barbie” is still in theaters as of this writing, but is scheduled for a digital release on September 12th (rescheduled from Sept. 5th), with a physical media BluRay/DVD release tentatively slated for September as well.

Images: Warner Bros., Author.

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