Barbie (2024.4, Terrific , Energy )

So far, at least, this is my favorite picture of the year. Full of sensory and storytelling delight. (5*)

Barbie – Snapshot

Barbie is a terrific movie that, ultimately, is about what is perhaps the most fundamental difference in the human world – men and women. Relax, have fun, and enjoy the multiple-level messaging! (5*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Max

Rent:  Prime/Apple/Fandango ($4)

Barbie – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (8) / Oscar Wins (1) :

Best Picture

Adapted Screenplay (Greta Gerwig / Noah Baumbach)

Supporting Actress (America Ferrera)

Supporting Actor (Ryan Gosling)

Production Design (Sarah Greenwood / Katie Spencer)

Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran)

Original Song (“What Was I Made For?”; Billie Eilish / Finneas O’Connell) WINNER

Original Song (“I’m Just Ken” ; Mark Ronson / Andrew Wyatt)

Barbie placed third of all 38 Oscar-nominated films this year with an OQI score of 13.  It ranked behind only Oppenheimer and Poor Things. With four major nominations and four minor nominations, it is what I call a “balanced” film which means it should be both fun to watch and to tell a good story.

It is very uncommon for two songs to be nominated from the same movie, but Barbie scores one for Ken and one for Barbie.  I’m Just Ken” was sung by Ryan Gosling first in the movie and then in a knockout performance at the Oscar ceremony.  Gosling may not have the most sterling voice, but he has a dramatic delivery and he also shows off his fit body with some impressive dancing.  The song was composed by the same team who did the score, have done music videos for Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus and won the Original Song Oscar previously for their song “Shallow” in A Star is Born.

Young Billie Eilish (born in 2001), with her brother Finneas O’Connell, picked up her second Oscar with her contemplative song “What Was I Made For”.  The song does play at the end of the movie as it is wrapping up and moving into the credits, something I usually don’t like.  In this case, though the music with the soft, almost in a hush, Eilish tone, seems entirely appropriate as a final wrap on the existential themes of the movie.  Her first Oscar was for the Title song for the James Bond movie, No Time to Die.  

Not surprising, if you’ve seen the movie, were the nominations for production design and costumes, both of which are exciting and, yes, over-the-top – after all, the film cost $100M to make!  Given the theme of the movie, the Barbie Doll, costumes are front and center and it is clear that huge investments were made in replicating the outfits that came in the box.  Although it was something my sisters did, not me, it seems like changing Barbie’s clothes was a big part of the fun!  This was the ninth nomination for Jacqueline Durran who won two Oscars for Little Women (19) and Anna Karenina (12).  Other recent movies she has designed for include Beauty and the Beast, Cyrano, The Darkest Hour, The Batman, Spencer, and 1917.  That she was nominated is probably not the question; it is why didn’t she win?  While I’ve only seen one of the other nominees, Killers of the Flower Moon, and haven’t seen the winner, Poor Things, I predicted Barbie would win this category and still think it should have.  For Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie”, Durran created perfect costumes ranging from her origin in the black and white swimsuit, to the ridiculously pink western-style bell bottoms and vest she wore in the real world and dozens of delightful outfits in-between.

Clothes weren’t everything for the Barbie doll – she had multiple dream houses, furniture to fill them up and a car or two, all of them 23% smaller in scale.  Houses didn’t have stairs because Barbie just sort of floated between floors (with invisible hands).  Production designer  Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer were both nominated for their work in creating sets that were also not quite to scale and were filled with remarkably detailed items that evoked the real dream houses.  Greenwood and Spencer have worked as a team before and have received six other Oscar nominations including for Beauty and the Beast and The Darkest Hour.  They didn’t win this year either and I’m kind of dumbfounded as to why.  The rich detail in Barbieland and the wonderfully-doll-like set pieces they created are so entirely appropriate that you almost believe that the cast was miniaturized rather than the sets maximized.  They faced the same competition as in Costumes and it isn’t clear why they didn’t win in Production Design either!

Barbie wasn’t even nominated for Makeup & Hairstyling and yet, reportedly, Margot Robbie wore 18 different wigs, each costing around $40,000.  And what about Kate McKinnon’s outrageous makeup as Weird Barbie?  If Maestro can get a makeup nomination for a prosthetic nose that is barely different than Cooper’s own, then why does Barbie not at least get a nomination?

Similar inequities seem to apply in the three advanced technical categories – Cinematography, Film Editing, and Visual Effects.  I suppose in the visual effects area the decision to use low-scale practical effects over sophisticated CGI may have kicked it out of that category.  (Although 265 people were credited in visual and special effects, they also had 100 stunt performers, showing that a great deal of the physical comedy was actually performed, not CGI’d).  But Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has four prior Oscar nominations including for his work filming Killers of the Flower Moon, The Irishman, and Brokeback Mountain.  Some of the filming decisions in Barbie are very supportive of the films message of exchanging realities.  Why he didn’t score a nomination this time is anyone’s guess.

The missing nominations continue as we move into the major categories.  Yes, Greta Gerwig and her creative partner, and husband, Noah Baumbach were nominated for the Screenplay, but she wasn’t nominated for directing Barbie.  There are two inequities here.  First is the directing overlook and the second is that the script was shoved into the Adapted Screenplay category.  I view the film as every bit as powerful as Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.  Obviously, it isn’t as serious a film, but that does not make its impact less. If Gerwig could score a nomination for directing Lady Bird, then it isn’t clear why this effort, so much more massive in scale and scope, wouldn’t qualify her to compete with Scorsese or Nolan(Oppenheimer).

And why is this an “Adapted” Screenplay instead of “Original”?  “Adapted” has, almost always, referred to a screenplay that takes its plot and characters from another work of art.  Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon was based on a similarly named book and I believe the rest of the “Adapted” nominees were also.  And I understand that there are some animated films and videos involving “Barbie” and there might actually be a “book” or two about her.  And, of course, Barbie and Ken have been doll characters for generations.  But there is nothing out there with this story-line, that I am aware of.  What Gerwig and Baumbach created was out of their own imaginations as they attempted to imagine what a doll like Barbie would think and feel if she were to come alive and then suddenly emerge into our world.  That is an exciting and “original” idea.  Gerwig did receive an Adapted Screenplay nomination for her version of Little Women, but she and Baumbach are also fully capable of original work including her Lady Bird (about growing up) and Baumbach’s nominations for The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. Barbie’s story line, dialogue, and characters are unique and “original” and the screenplay should have been recognized as such.

Perhaps what makes the film shine most are the brilliant performances by the two main characters – Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical” Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken – and the dynamic between them.  And yet, Gosling got pushed down into the “Supporting” Actor category and Robbie didn’t even get a nomination!  

Gosling’s Ken is reticent and sort of vacuous, initially, which is exactly what his character “just Ken” should feel.  His Ken is very good at “beach”, but nothing else.  He becomes more assertive and confident upon discovering “patriarchy” and Gosling’s exaggerated portrayal is an iconic statement of what makes toxic masculinity so emasculating.  He loves Barbie but has no idea what that means – dolls don’t, now do they?  Oh, and he can sing and dance, too, which, in Barbie is a definite plus.

The astounding performance here belongs to Margot Robbie.  I admit that I’ve always enjoyed her eye-candy appearance – and they definitely play that up as Stereotypical Barbie.  But until now I’ve not been greatly impressed with her acting ability.  I thought she was miscast in her nominated performance as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, primarily because she was so much better looking than Harding and Harding’s looks were part of what fed her jealousy.  Robbie was also briefly in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but, unfortunately, her Sharon Tate role was cast, not for acting but because she had an uncanny resemblance to the murdered actress.  (I’m not going to talk about her performance in Babylon because, well, that movie was a disaster!). I did like Robbie in Bombshell where she played one of the few fictional women.  Her scene with Ailes where she has to raise her skirt forced some facial and body language acting from her that was exceptional.  She reprises that kind of physical performance often in Barbie where her behaving like a plastic doll at times is simply hilarious – the whole thing with “flat feet” is wonderful.  But then, in the human world, she is also able to cry and, when she does, we feel with her.  Robbie is the core of this movie and her lack of a nomination is damn near criminal.  I would put her up against Lily Gladstone, Carey Mulligan, or Annette Bening anytime.

America Ferrara did get her first nomination for her role as Gloria.  She plays the human mother who is responsible for Barbie’s changes.  At around one hour and fourteen minutes, Gloria delivers a terrific monologue that sums up what it is like to be a human female in today’s world.  She’s an important supporting character in Barbie and her nomination is well earned.

With so many important nominations, it isn’t surprising that it also got nominated for Best Picture.  In the end, though, Barbie won only for a song that plays at the end.  There has been lots of discussion about the lack of appropriate nominations for Gerwig and Robbie and for the movie’s general lack of wins at the Oscars.  Some have said it is the Academy’s sexual bias against women.  While we aren’t there yet in terms of full gender equity, I think the bias against Barbie comes from a different source.  I will talk more about that in the final section.  But Barbie should have done far better than it did at the Oscars!

Barbie – Related Movies

Lady Bird (Directing, Screenplay, Editing)

Little Women (Directing, Screenplay, Editing, Costumes)

Marriage Story (Screenplay)

Bombshell/I, Tonya/ Babylon/Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Robbie)

La La Land/ Half Nelson/ First Man (Gosling)

Wolf of Wall Street (Robbie, Cinematography)

Killers of the Flower Moon/The Irishman/Silence/Brokeback Mountain (Cinematography)

A Star is Born (Music)

Cyrano/Darkest Hour/Beauty and the Beast/ Anna Karenina/ Atonement/Pride & Prejudice (Production Design/ Costumes)

Barbie – What Others Think

Both the viewing public and the critics rank Barbie pretty much in the middle of this year’s 24 general interest movies, with the critics viewing it slightly more favorable than regular folk.  Audience reaction tends to be all over the map but those who disliked it seem to believe it was overly preachy.  Others didn’t like the portrayal of Ken and how it seems to knock masculinity.  I’ll have more to say on these criticisms in the last section.

Critics were a little more favorable.  Christy Lemire (RogerEbert) praised Barbie as “…a dazzling achievement, both technically and in tone.  It’s a visual feast that succeeds as both a gleeful escape and a battle cry.”  And yet she too found parts of it a little too much.  Talking about Gloria’s monologue she rallied to it as a Mom, but “…the longtime film critic in me found this moment a preachy momentum killer – too heavy handed, too on-the-nose, despite its many insights.”  Brian Truitt (USA Today) called Barbie “enjoyably goofy and enormously creative” and noted that it “is really an insightful exploration of humanity, the meaning of life and the cognitive dissonance of a woman living in the patriarchy, all with a really big heart and style to spare.”  And even Manohla Dargis (New York Times) noted how, at the heart of the movie, in real Los Angeles “Barbie is astonished to discover sexism, and Ken is delighted to discover patriarchy, contrapuntal revelations that generate further comedy and something like enlightenment.”  The critics, generally, found the film both meaningful and entertaining, as I did!

Barbie – Special Mention

The Barbie Doll – The original – stereotypical – Barbie doll was invented by Ruth Handler who, with her husband, created the company Mattel and released the doll in the U.S. on March 9, 1959.  It was based on a a Bidi Lilli doll, which, in turn was based on a German comic strip and first sold in Germany, mostly to adults, in 1955.  Obviously, it has become enormously successful – by 2006 Mattel was claiming that three Barbie dolls were sold every second.  

Joan has read that there are 125 different variations of the Barbie doll.  I guess I knew that there were a couple of attempts to introduce career Barbies (e.g. Astronaut Barbie in 1965, Doctor Barbie in 1988). But I had no idea that the Barbie doll world had become so diverse, nor so supportive of women achieving substantial careers.  (I went off to college in 1970 and so stopped witnessing my sisters’ dressing her up).  Until this movie I have never stopped to think of Barbie as much more than a disproportionate, big-breasted, long-legged fantasy.  So, for me at least, it is enlightening to consider that Barbie has a much more feminist role than I ever imagined.  The dolls have, since 1967, also included realistic portrayals of multiple races and there was even a disabled Barbie released in 1997.  (Who knew these things?  I didn’t. And, perhaps, it is that new knowledge that also informs my favorable opinion of the film.)

Barbie – Michael’s Moments

I usually tend to really like the movie I am currently working on.  And so, a month ago, I was sure this year’s best movie was going to be Killers of the Flower Moon.  And, when I get to Oppenheimer I will, most likely, think it deserved Best Picture.  So with the knowledge of my tendency to favor the most recent, I am a little reluctant to declare that Barbie is this year’s stand-out movie, but I’m going to say it anyway.  Barbie is a fabulous movie and, while I’m sure everyone but me has already seen it, I’d say see it again.  It is exhilaratingly entertaining and packed with layers of messaging.

It generated substantial controversy.  A New York Times article was titled “Barbie Movie Gives Left and Right Another Battlefront, in Pink.” (Flegenheimer; Tracy: 7/24/23) and another one was “Barbie Reviews Are In: Slickly Subversive or Inescapably Corporate” (Jacobs: 7/19/23).  So if a movie gets flack from both sides, what could be wrong with it?  The right, apparently, objects to the simplified notions of “patriarchy” and how it demeans the masculine role.  The left seems to have remnants of objections to the “stereotypical” version of Barbie as a mechanism of body shaming, but also to the movie’s enshrinement of a toy doll, and how that glorifies consumer capitalism.  (I think that it is exactly this political controversy that kept Barbie from more nominations and wins at the Oscars!)

Realistically, I don’t get much of the argument from those on the right, although I suspect that is one of the reasons it didn’t fare so well among general audiences.  How many Trumpers felt the film as a direct attack on their egos and, especially, their manhood?  I mean if you can’t win at Beach, then what is life for?  The criticism of the patriarchy is precisely correct and its effect is perhaps most evident in Gloria’s speech if not in Barbie’s total bewilderment as her world is turned completely upside down when she walks Venice beach.  How Ken feels in Barbieland is exactly how a lot of women feel in the real world!

Criticisms from the left have a bit more going for them, but still mostly miss the boat.  I had similar complaints about the glorification of corporate culture in one of the Lego movies that made the Oscar list a few years back.  But Barbie is radically different because of the satire it makes of the underlying sex role division.  The themes in this movie are arrayed in multiple layers with inversions of texture and form that keep the mind as dazzled as the senses.  When Barbie’s feet go flat, it is a collapse of so much plasticity that real modern culture seems to demand of women.  We DO demand that they reshape their feet just so their calves can look more rounded.  We effectively ask that they mold themselves in the image that makes them most attractive, regardless of how nonsensical, or artificial, that makes them feel.

There might be an argument to be made that the Barbie doll only amplifies the repression of women because of its ridiculously “perfect” image of a woman’s body that only Margot Robbie attains.  I suppose I get that, especially since I have – since about age 13 – lusted after pretty much that image, although for me for a long time back then it was Elle MacPherson, not Barbie).  But the movie suggests, and apparently with some justification, that the Barbie doll may very well have been a key player and even instigator of the feminist movement.  As the scene at the very beginning suggests, dolls before Barbie were baby dolls which only reinforced the idea that a woman’s purpose in the world was procreation, nurturing of babies, and keeping house.  But the Barbie doll was a fully developed woman – with breasts.  So the imagination of girls could now extend to a much bigger world.  They could now play with ideas of being an adult woman and, as the doll evolved, with ideas of being an astronaut, a doctor, a president, a physicist.  I never saw all that happen, but I am told that they had that effect.  If a girl can imagine that she is a construction worker, she’s much more likely to become one!

Pamela Paul, in her New York Times essay “Barbie is Bad. There, I Said It” suggests “despite its overstuffed playroom aesthetic and musical glaze, the movie was boring. There were no recognizable human characters…no actual stakes, no plot to follow in any real or pretend world that remotely made sense…only winking ha-has at a single joke improbably stretched into a feature-length movie.”  I guess I sort of feel sorry for Ms. Paul.  She seems to be so jaded that she can’t see the levity in the feminist parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the beginning of the movie sending up the origins of man with a new version on the origin of women.  Or the fluid way the obviously fake dream houses take on the realism of their world the way our McMansions falsely reflect ours.  Or the way a song featuring posturing men becomes an absurd battle dance with fake swords, showing the absurdity of “manly” wars.  Or even how the importance of riding a horse (think Reagan westerns) is reduced to holding, with two hands, a non-existent stick!  The human characters were exaggerated parodies intended only to be recognized for their extreme extension of existing traits.  And the plot is, in my take, nothing less than the battle of the sexes and how it has changed, especially in the last few decades.  Ms. Paul gets it wrong!

Barbie works on so many levels and with so much parody and intelligence that sometimes people seeking simpler and clearer messages won’t get it.  This is a terrific movie stimulating the mind and the senses.  If you haven’t seen it, do so now!  If you have, see it again, and maybe a third time.  (I have, and it gets even better!) (5*)

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1 thought on “Barbie (2024.4, Terrific , Energy )”

  1. Good review, Mike!
    Just one clarification. Only one of us squirrels (sisters) used to dress them up extensively. I’ll let you guess which one of us. (It wasn’t me!)


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