I remember when women despised the Barbie doll for creating an unrealistic, unattainable representation of the female body. Over time, the smart people at Mattel expanded their line to be more diverse and inclusive and the stigma all but vanished. One might expect a 21st century mainstream movie produced by the toymaker to be a paean to the signature doll of our lifetime, but director Greta Gerwig (who wrote the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach) has concocted something entirely different: a female empowerment saga with a lot to say.

Barbie is a clever and canny film that uses Margot Robbie (who also produced the picture) as the embodiment of “Stereotypical Barbie,” the perfectly-dressed and coiffed blond beauty who drives a pink Thunderbird convertible and resides in a literal dream house. She spends every day living her best life in the company of other Barbies of various shapes, sizes, and skin colors, dreamily admired by Ken, a good-looking guy who is never quite comfortable in his skin (so to speak).

By the time I got to see Barbie—with a full house of enthusiastic fans, at my local theater, on Tuesday night—I’d already heard that it was a smart movie, and that it is. My wife and I enjoyed watching it with such a responsive audience. It begins with our perfect heroine having impure thoughts, which turn out to be a message from the Real World, sent by a working woman who used to believe in the magic of play. Barbie’s mission is to set things straight in that human world in order to restore peace and harmony in her own environment.

With such a good start, I wonder why Gerwig cluttered the rest of the narrative. Will Ferrell plays the CEO of Mattel in a completely superfluous wink-wink subplot. Its only value is that it introduces us to Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler (played by a perfectly cast Rhea Perlman). As for the comedy relief provided by Ryan Gosling and a host of other dudes (Simu Liu, Scott Evans, et al) I confess that I don’t give a hoot about Ken’s identity issues. Incidentally, the older woman whom Barbie meets at a bus stop is legendary costume designer Ann Roth, who’s still going strong at age 92. 

America Ferrera plays the human whose disaffection for Barbie sets the story in motion, and she gets to deliver a remarkable screed about woman’s role(s) in society that I suspect will be excerpted and quoted for years to come. Ariana Greenblatt is very good as her sullen adolescent daughter.

When I became a father I searched for movies that would show my daughter positive role models, and it was tough going. Barbie makes up for lost time and should warm the hearts of parents and daughters alike—even if the girls don’t get every gag or reference in the script. 

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024