A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, one man single-handedly changed the way that movies were merchandised. George Lucas managed to blindside studio execs by getting to keep what were felt to be essentially low-value rights to tie-in products, and created a gargantuan range of offshoot materials – not least of which involved toys – on a hitherto unseen scale.
Ever since then, movie companies have been so eager to not make the same mistake again, and wring every last cent out of incidental wares, commoditising what they have in a slew of goods, and maximising the payday that they hope to get if a movie does well (or even if it doesn’t, frankly). Nowadays, it seems almost expected that every mainstream popcorn flick will come along with an entire catalogue of baubles, bangles and bright shiny things, all with the film’s logo slapped on it, no matter just how loose or tangential the connection might be to the finished article.
At some point, however, the cart began being put before the horse. Blame the 1980s, if you like, when the toy companies started to come up with Saturday morning cartoons to hawk their lines, in the form of what were effectively longform TV ads, for things like Transformers. Suddenly, all of the merch came first, and the entertainment industry became the shop window for them. You could also blame a certain amount of intellectual and creative bankruptcy, as Tinseltown started burning through ideas and became ravenously hungry for IP to exploit.
It was, therefore, almost an inevitability that toys and games would end up being a source of material for the studios, with many examples – being of such varying degrees of quality – having hit the multiplexes over the years. Hasbro has been a particular perpetrator of this trend, as their aforementioned Robots In Disguise being a case in point, along with the G.I. Joe series, and Battleship all hailing from their company. At one point, there was even talk of Ridley Scott making a film based on Monopoly, as McG being all set to direct a Michael Bay-produced Ouija movie.
Yes, there is surely no barrel bottom left unscraped as studio bigwigs clamour for The Next Big Thing. The marketplace of ideas is not what it once was, evidently. Yes, there have been some unexpected high spots, where filmmakers have risen to the challenge, and transcended what could have been an anodyne, soulless corporate shilling exercise. Take a look at The LEGO Movie, or 1985’s Clue, based on murder mystery board game Cluedo. Yes, it is absolutely possible to make a motion picture based upon a child’s plaything and come up with something unexpectedly remarkable.
The latest example of this is courtesy of Greta Gerwig, who has made her way up from being a part of the mumblecore cinema scene to breaking through into the big leagues, all thanks to her first two solo directorial releases: Lady Bird and Little Women. Since the first teaser trailer dropped in December 2022, it became clear Gerwig’s take on Mattel’s now-sexagenarian doll Barbie really had the potential to be something truly wonderful. By audaciously constructing this as a shot-for-shot recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it made people sit up and take notice.
Since then, Barbie has truly taken on a life of its own, helped no end by the film hitting cinemas on the exact same day as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The stark tonal contrast between the two features has created a hype and buzz, with the meme industry going into overdrive as #Barbenheimer has swamped social media in the last few months, all thanks to a sheer quirk of counterprogramming, leading people to talk about doing the unlikeliest of double bills. For perhaps the first time since the pandemic, folks are truly excited at the prospect of going to the cinema again as a proper event, something which should be truly lauded.
But is all this razzmatazz and ballyhoo actually worth it? In a word, yes. Gerwig’s Barbie sees our plastic icon (ably played by Margot Robbie) living every day in Barbieland as the best day ever, until one fateful day when things start seeming to be a little off. Her perfect existence is suddenly troubled by thoughts of death, and things start spiralling out of control. Seeking the counsel of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), Barbie goes on a quest to the Real World, accompanied by longterm not-quite-boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling). She soon finds out she isn’t widely seen as a female-empowering feminist icon, despite what she thought to be the case.
Barbie is not your usual, everyday movie based on a toy line, as Gerwig – who also co-wrote the film – has used all of the trappings of the garish pink plastic artifice of the core brand identity to lure audiences in, and using this as a Trojan horse through which to deliver a ‘smash the patriarchy’ message. Gerwig’s Barbie film is far more intelligent, insightful, deep, dark, funny and melancholy than we really have any right to deserve. There are few mainstream movies which have a real insight into the human condition, while being ostensibly all about a dress-up fashion doll so beloved of pre-tweens since the end of the 1950s.
This is deeply subversive stuff, cocking a snook quite openly at rampant consumerism, glass ceilings, objectification, and toxic masculinity, with a pointed jab in the direction of those keyboard warriors so enamoured of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. The script neatly postulates all of the pro- and anti-Barbie arguments and rhetoric, so evenhandedly presenting both sides of the debate which has raged practically since the doll had first made it onto toy store shelves. You also have to admire the critical drubbing which Barbie’s makers at Mattel allow themselves to receive at Greta Gerwig’s hands, with no punches being pulled.
As the person being front and centre throughout the feature, Margot Robbie not only perfectly encapsulates your typical Barbie, but also takes us all along with her on the character’s unexpected emotional journey, as Barbie gradually comes to realise that her simply being in the world as part of a typical little girl’s formative years has not always necessarily been the kind of positive, transformative influence which she had hoped to be. The Barbie movie will expose younger audience members to some challenging and difficult concepts, firmly resisting either dumbing things down, or shying away from uncomfortable truths.
Barbie is a sheer unalloyed delight, a revelation to behold in all its bright neon hues, perfectly capturing Barbie’s world in every detail, while giving us treatises on mortality, purpose, and existentialism, delivered through a satirical lens. Time to put away childish things can be deferred a little bit longer. Life in plastic? It’s fantastic.