I didn’t originally plan to see the Barbie movie, even though that trailer spoofing the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey did make me chuckle. The film looked like a strange parody of the Barbie brand with a dash of The Lego Movie and the admittedly very funny Barbie and Ken scenes in Toy Story 3. I grew up playing with Barbies (thinking back, it was probably one of my first fandoms), and I wasn’t sure if this particular movie was going to be my vibe.
However, the fun marketing campaign and grassroots #Barbenheimer movement slowly wore down my resolve, and I finally bought a ticket, afraid to be left out of this pop culture moment.
I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie quite like Barbie, and watching it was one of the most uniquely weird experiences I’ve had in a theater. I walked out afterwards haunted by a swirling pink haze of questions, such as, “What the heck did I just watch? I don’t think I loved that? But I still really, really want to talk about it?”
The fact I don’t totally know how to think and feel about Barbie almost made me want to cop out of writing a review. Because it always feels weird to not love a movie that everyone else is raving about, and I don’t want to be the sad little cloud raining on the parade. Yet for better or worse, on the ESO Oppenheimer podcast I declared that I would be following up with a Barbie review, so here it is! And even though I didn’t love the movie, I’m going to try to keep this review light in tone, because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who did enjoy it. 😉
The Barbie movie is a lot to take in — and I do mean A LOT — and I’m not sure I was fully prepared for it. I feel like I’m picky sometimes about comedies, maybe because it’s not my favorite movie genre (though I promise, I’m not a total enemy of fun). I tend to prefer movies in my favorite genres — i.e. sci-fi/fantasy and also historical period dramas — that have humor sprinkled throughout them, like the Dowager Countess’ quips in Downton Abbey or the spirited fun of Strange New Worlds. I do love me a good rom com, and I’m a sucker for a cheesy happily ever after.
It’s arguable that Barbie doesn’t end with a perfect happily ever after, which is maybe what threw me? Although Barbie doesn’t immediately seem to have a lot in common with her opening weekend buddy J. Robert Oppenheimer, Barbie actually does spend a good chunk of this movie questioning her complicated legacy and despairing about the future of the real world. (No really, one of the themes of the Barbie movie actually is existential dread. I definitely didn’t see that coming!)
I really loved The Lego Movie, but Barbie feels way more bizarre and surreal, maybe because of the live action? And I feel like the funniest moments I’d already experienced in the trailer. A lot of times with comedy, at least for me personally, less is more. Barbie would have made a pretty hilarious 10 minute SNL sketch, but two hours was a bit much for my brain.
This film both celebrates and deconstructs Barbie. It’s a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the modern world; explores a toy’s desire to be human; and it ends in a much different way than I’d been anticipating.
Anyway, this is a wild and most definitely not a safe, paint-by-the-numbers type of movie, and I’m kinda surprised it got made. Occasionally, studios CAN greenlight something daring and original! As a fan of film, it was important for me to see it. Because even if I didn’t personally love it, I think it’s going to be a film people will be discussing for a long while, and not just because of its huge opening weekend.
There were some parts I enjoyed. The jokes from Barbie lore (like the shout-outs to Midge and Allan) were pretty funny, and the disco dance scene had me grooving. Ryan Gosling also seems to be having a delightful time hamming it up as one of the many Kens (Simu Liu a.k.a. Marvel’s Shang-Chi is another standout). Ken’s obsession with horses; his Mojo Dojo Casa House; and his power ballad “I’m Just Ken” are hilarious. (Minor spoilers: I was originally a little sad Ken’s arc turned into a villain story, because he was really funny as a sidekick, but I did appreciate his redemption arc at the end and I like that he apologized to Barbie and learned from his experiences. I wouldn’t mind seeing a short film featuring an adventure with Gosling and Liu’s Kens going on a journey of self discovery.)
And even though the humor in this movie didn’t always gel with me, seeing the reflection on childhood and the bond kids have with their toys did hit me in the feels. For me at least, Barbie was a way to explore my imagination and creativity while growing up. My brother and I made up all kinds of stories while playing with dolls, and our toys were spies, adventurers, and I’m pretty sure even Jedi a time or two. I would make my own Barbie furniture, clothes, and accessories (maybe my Barbie clothes designs were a precursor to my later passion for making my own costumes as a cosplayer). I have a lot of fond memories associated with Barbie.
Barbie may not be a film I personally loved, but as mentioned before, I still want to talk about it, and I want to hear from people who really liked it and why it worked for you! Maybe one day I’ll watch it again, and the humor will work better for me. Until then, I’ll have to begrudgingly admit that yes, “I’m Just Ken” is still stuck in my head.