By Elias Savada.

Gerwig leaves a personal imprint on her film, as a boldly painted battle cry for womanhood and subversive social satire about misguided male perceptions.”

In a refreshingly anarchistic, pink-pastel manner, Greta Gerwig, the actor (Frances Ha) turned writer (here with her partner – in business and in life – Noah Baumbach) and director (Lady Bird), has taken on the task of turning a beloved 11½-inch plastic doll into a hopefully cherished big screen phenomenon. It gets wondrously close, especially with all the side promotions and abundant media coverage that are being pushed by Warner Bros. and Mattel to make that happen. Yet, indie darling Gerwig still leaves a personal imprint on her film, as a boldly painted battle cry for womanhood and subversive social satire about misguided male perceptions. The cotton candy confection that is Barbie takes solid aim at patriarchy as it powers through its own sweet universe. Bizarre Beach Blanket Barbievision awaits.

From the opening moments, which challenges our caveman-monolith memories of the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey into a little girls-BIG BARBIE sequence, you know this movie is going to be different, even if the performance of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is the same.

With Margot Robbie reigning atop this cinematic queendom as Stereotypical Barbie, there are nearly a dozen actresses (including Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Alexandra Shipp, Emma Mackey, and Dua Lipa) credited as various versions in the royal Barbie coterie. Ken – you remember naive Ken, her friend? — he’s got half as many supporting Kens in his corral, including Simu Liu, who fronted Marvel’s first Asian-fronted movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Their numbskull leader, of course, is played by a bleach-blonde-haired Ryan Gosling, and he’s as clueless as can be. He knows he wants to hook-up with Robbie’s Barbie, yet both are unsure about what that entails.

In its 60+ year history, this American toy has had its share of controversy and misfires, and it’s to the script’s credit that it offers a fair deal of that account to the viewer, often with a wink-wink approach. The film gives sideways glances to two of Mattel’s failed dolls that had a short-lived tangle back in the 1960s — Allan (Michael Cera) and Midge (Emerald Fennell). Mattel’s own story gets a shout out for its flawed co-founder Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), who is credited with inventing the doll and was the first president of the company for nearly 30 years, but not without some criminal issues surrounding her, involving fraud and company finances. She was also a cancer survivor.

The central concept involves Robbie’s life going awry when she finds her thoughts straying from her dollish norm. When feelings of death enter her mind, everyone in Barbieland is dumbstruck. Then her arches, normally in high heel mode, fall flat, and her make-believe shower turns cold. It’s not until Weird Barbie (McKinnon, channeling Phyllis Diller, in both costume and hairstyle) diagnoses her issue, caused by a mental disconnect with her principal caretaker in the Real World. Weird recommends she needs to investigate the issue by donning Birkenstocks and tossing her trademark stilettos, then to venture forth into that Real World a.k.a. Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

With Ken, who stowed away her cute mini convertible, both their fish-out-of-water antics reveal just how dire the situation is. After run-ins with the law, Ken gets some bad notions and nearly ruins the Barbie’s dream world in a male makeover that would be disastrous. Returning home, with Gloria (America Ferrara), who works on the lower end of the totem pole at Mattel, and her rebellious teenage daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) help hatch a counter-revolution. This might be the film’s weak point, as it’s hard to conceive that Ken can harbor anti-consumerism viewpoints. Or that he has any concepts at all.

Also in tow, and showing it welcomes having some fun poking at itself, is Mattel. Its CEO is playing by Will Farrell. When he and his all-male yes men learn that Barbie has escaped her box into their realm, all hell breaks loose. Their Keystone Kops antics provide for some loony adventures.

Cherry on the top? Well, there’s also singing and dancing! And it sports some occasional narration from Helen Mirren (pitch perfect, as if she’s hosting another episode of the hilarious Documentary Now!, IFC’s mockumentary series).

Barbie’s might be one of the most quirky and creative big budget films ever to escape from Hollywood.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).

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