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Mortality, feminism, Ryan Gosling’s abs: how Barbie is so …

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t would be very easy to make a bad Barbie movie. In fact, there have already been dozens of bad Barbie movies: Mattel’s endless series of shoddily-constructed straight-to-video animated films are legendary for their sheer quantity if nothing else. In the decades since Barbie dolls first hit the market, Barbie has been a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, a mermaid — but never a movie star, at least at the box office.

Luckily for Barbie (and Mattel), director Greta Gerwig chose the doll as the canvas on which to paint the most ambitious movie musical in years. Along with her co-conspirators Margot Robbie, who stars as Barbie and co-produced the film, and Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the script, Gerwig has used the toy as a Trojan horse to revive a genre that has been near-dead for years: the big-budget Hollywood musical. The resultant exploration of mortality, feminism and Ryan Gosling’s abs is so much more than just a toy commercial.

“Barbie” is undeniably a corporate effort, with Mattel logos and products plastered all over the screen, but Gerwig expands the film beyond that into a production full of visual inventiveness and intelligent comedy, including nods to influential filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Demy. The movie’s crisp production design was so committed to the look of Barbie that it caused an international shortage of her signature pink paint.

The movie begins with an identity crisis. Barbie’s perfect, plasticky life in Barbieland has been intruded upon by a nagging fear of death. She isn’t sure where the feelings are coming from, but slowly they begin to affect her physically. Her feet, which once remained in a permanent tip-toe to fit perfectly into high heels, have fallen flat onto the ground. Bit by bit, Barbie is becoming a normal person, and she wants no part of it.

Robbie is excellent in the leading role and brings a real sense of angst and depth to a character that could easily be a caricature. She is skilled enough as a performer to nail the big, showy musical moments while possessing the warmth and humanity to be credible as a person (or doll) with a multifaceted identity.

Before thoughts of mortality invaded Barbie’s head, she had a perfect life. In Barbieland, women rule the world as perfect, idealized, career-oriented super-people who all, for the most part, are named Barbie. The president is Barbie, the Supreme Court are Barbies, the construction crews are Barbies and everyone lives in their own customized Dream House. Robbie’s protagonist is known as Stereotypical Barbie, the default doll who serves as a de facto mascot for the community.

Also, Kens are there. They stand around on the beach all day and hope one of the Barbies looks at them. It’s a servile state of affairs for Kens, but they are content to bask in the glory of their female counterparts. The bleached-blonde Ken (Gosling) who pines after Stereotypical Barbie is frustrated by her constant dismissal of him and is desperate to earn her attention, even in the face of constant rejection.

Gosling is a standout as Ken, employing the natural talent for comedy that he displayed in previous films like “The Nice Guys” and “The Big Short.” His doofus of a Ken provides comedic relief when necessary but also sings the film’s show-stopping final musical number. It’s a difficult role, one that requires song, dance, comedic chops and the ability to stay likable while crudely talking down to every woman around him, and Gosling nails it.

Stereotypical Barbie’s existential dread throws her blissful life into chaos. She discovers that her anxiety is a result of the person playing with her being upset. In order to get her life back, Barbie must venture through a portal into the real world, find the person playing with her and cheer them up.

Naturally, Ken stows away in Barbie’s car and follows her to the real world, where he discovers the concept of patriarchy. By the time Barbie finds the mother (America Ferrera) and daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) who are playing with her, Ken has returned to Barbieland to establish a patriarchy of Kens over Barbies.

What follows is an often hilarious deconstruction of patriarchal society and how women adapt and conform to survive within it. Gerwig and Baumbach amplify gender roles for comic effect: merely one day after declaring their new patriarchy, the Kens discard their gold-lined jumpsuits for cowboy hats and denim and become obsessed with beer and mansplaining “The Godfather” to Barbies.

After meeting up with the real-world women who play with her, Barbie returns to Barbieland to rescue her fellow Barbies and prevent Ken from rewriting the Constitution to put Kens in charge of the government.

“Barbie” was made on a 145 million dollar budget, and it looks better than every one of the CGI-laden superhero slogs of this summer, which cost nearly double that amount. Barbieland is the most glorious location in any summer blockbuster in a long time. Its airtight production design pays homage to both the limitations of plastic toys and the history of movie musicals, specifically Hollywood productions of the ‘50s and ‘60s as well as the French New Wave films that later deconstructed the genre.

Gerwig’s attention to detail, and the joyfulness that seeps out of every frame of this hot-pink tidal wave of old-school Hollywood charm, should serve as a wake-up call for everyone else making mega-budget movies in the post-Marvel era. Come for the flashy musical numbers, stay for the melancholy examination of mortality and sharp commentary on gender roles.

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