‘Barbie’ redefines big-movie disappointment, landing as a muddled point-scoring satire unsuitable for children

What a doll: Margot Robbie as Barbie in ‘Barbie’.

BARBIE ** (114 minutes) PG
It’s like being smacked in the face with an iron fist stylistically sheathed in a frilled fluoro-pink glove.

We were all so primed to love Barbie, not just because of the alleged perfect casting of Margot Robbie in the title role but for the sense that this is the movie we need right now – a refuge from a dark, divided world into a realm of fluffy escapism.

If only.

Alas, the anticipatory glee quickly ferments into disappointment as Barbie turns out not to be the very thing the tsunami of pre-publicity and saturation marketing promises it will be – namely, fun.

The film is a major letdown – too long, too didactic and, to be honest, not all that funny.

Still, the biggest disappointment about this disappointing film – and also its biggest surprise – is how unsuitable it is for children.

As everybody knows from the unavoidable trailers, the basic premise sees Barbie (known as Stereotypical Barbie) contracting symptoms of reality; her arched feet suddenly go flat, she has thoughts of death and anxiety, etc.

After learning from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) that her condition is due to the emotional state of her owner (a very clunky concept, one of many) Barbie travels with Ken (Ryan Gosling) from the fantasy world of Barbie Land to the real world.

She discovers what a mean, male-dominated, sexist world it is and how her self-image as a girl-power figure onto which little girls can project their positivity has been rejected by a generation of post-Barbie teens. She’s reviled, they tell her. She’s out-of-date, out-of-touch and is responsible for setting feminism back 50 years.

As for Ken, a visit to the library introduces him to the concept of patriarchy, an idea he’s keen to bring to Barbie Land, when the Kens live a subjugated life under the reign of the Barbies.

Word reaches the head office of toy company Mattel that Barbie and Ken have crossed the space-time continuum between the two worlds.

This gets the Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) in a tizz, demanding she be captured and “put back in her box” for the good of all. Nobody is worried about Ken.

Director Greta Gerwig has proven herself an accomplished dramatic storyteller with two excellent films: Little Women and Lady Bird.

Barbie, which she co-wrote with filmmaker/partner Noah Baumbach, suggests comedy is not her forte. Not yet anyway.

For the first 30 minutes or so Barbie is a fun, feather-weight satire with a pleasant, cartoonish look and a fizzy, upbeat vibe as it plays around with the Barbie image, lightly mocking stereotypes and illusions of perfection.

Then the stuff about patriarchy kicks in and the film turns into a thinly disguised #metoo rant, trading comedy for man-bashing and a lot of confused political point-scoring about sexism, women’s rights and feminism – or, possibly, the failure of feminism?

The film’s a mess, unfocussed and rambling and with very few laughs.

The whole two-worlds premise seemed the perfect set-up for an all-out comedy so it’s a shame the film becomes so consumed by with-it issues about gender politics, representation and a large dose of female self-loathing.

There are a lot of spiels in the film decrying the position of women in society, of contradictory behaviours and self-defeating expectations, all, presumably, to please men.

Apart from sounding less like dialogue and more like research notes read aloud – a common flaw in many films – it also makes Barbie come off a tad misanthropic.

It’s also tiring. Don’t we get enough of that stuff in the news and online commentary? Why are we being lectured to about sexual politics in a Barbie movie?

Despite trying to turn him into the villain of the piece, Ken is actually more likeable and entertaining a character than Barbie, who is preoccupied with finding herself and leading the other Barbies to reassert dominance over Barbie Land.

When Ken morphs into his ultra-macho persona the film comes close to tapping back into the fun vibe of its opening reel. There’s even a fabulous Grease-like musical number, though it feels like it’s been dropped in from a different film.

The full measure of the film’s lack of focus is seen with Will Ferrell, who is wasted here. Having set up the Mattel CEO as the chief villain, he is oddly sidelined and becomes lost in the story.

And he’s given some terrible words to spout. His objection to the sudden spike in Ken doll sales simply doesn’t make any sense.

If only the film held up better as a satire. As it is the big “empowerment” event as the Barbies plot to reclaim control of Barbie Land by fixing a vote.

Isn’t this how corrupt regimes operate? Communist ones especially?

This would be reading too much into the film had the makers not invited such comparisons with all the yap about inequality and sexism. It also seems to suggest that the surest way to beat men is to cheat. Talk about dubious messaging.

And why is it Barbie one second over 90 minutes? It’s further evidence that the principle of story-telling concision has evaporated.

The casting of Margot Robbie, who co-produced the film, has attracted much commentary over her being perfect for the part, something even the film’s limp, intermittent narration (by Helen Mirren) remarks upon. For all that, Robbie puts in a paper-thin performance, and her casting is somewhat bland. Apparently Amy Schumer was originally set to play Barbie. Now that would have been adventurous casting.

As for the film’s intended audience, be wary of that generous PG rating.

Indeed, Barbie might be on the verge of ticking off a lot of parents – mothers in particular – who take their Barbie-loving daughters to the film under the impression that it’s a fluffy fantasy suitable for kids.

It clearly isn’t. The adult concepts, fast dialogue delivery, double entendres, innuendos about masturbation, references to genitalia are not only going to go over the heads of kids, they will likely prompt some awkward questions.

So, feel for the parents and adult guardians as they struggle with how best to respond as their charges turn to them asking “what is patriarchy?” and “what’s a gynaecologist?”

Seems the marketing for Barbie was more thoroughly thought through than the film itself.

The bold prediction here is that Barbie will enjoy a huge opening because of all the saturation pre-selling, then see a marked drop off as word-of-mouth kicks in that the film is actually quite mediocre.

A much less bold prediction is that the film will be catnip for all the right-wing anti-woke cultural commentators who will surely rip into Barbie for its messaging about women’s rights and feminism, confused though it is.

They probably don’t have much influence when it comes to ticket sales, but they’ll no doubt have a field day using Barbie as the latest example of woke, virtue-signalling Hollywood.

As much as we all were looking forward to getting swept up by Barbie, the film has entered moviedom to redefine big-movie disappointment. The last time that happened was in 1999 with The Phantom Menace.

That’s some accomplishment.

One final point.

There was a time – not all that long ago though it feels like centuries – where product placement in a movie was regarded with great disdain.

The prominent appearance of a logo or brand name in a scene would rankle people. Who wants to see advertising when you’re supposed to be engrossed in a movie?

Things have clearly changed.

We now have films that are all about product brands, essentially unspooling as longform ads for merchandise and toy sales.

We saw it with the pre-Nolan Batman films, with the latter-day Star Wars trilogies, the Transformers franchise, Mario Bros, the superhero films and such like.

Barbie has turned out to be an exaggerated example of this consumerist phenomenon where the brand comes before the movie. All the movie signage essentially pulling double duty as ads for the toy line.

We see nothing wrong with this; it’s just part of the mass-market movie culture where companies happily spend hundreds of millions producing movies that will push toys, video games, clothes and so forth.

Barbie is a measure of how successful the social conditioning of film audiences has been; people are enthusiastically embracing the Barbie brand, dressing up in their best Barbie get-ups to see the film. Doll sales are set to skyrocket.

If only the film had been geared to the audience that ultimately gives Barbie life.