“Barbie” is a lovely, eccentrically imaginative example of brand extension and raw, untrammeled commercialism. Well, maybe a little trammeled. Any $145 million studio movie based on a doll, accessories sold separately, no doubt comes with a few restrictions. And yet this one actually feels spontaneous, and fun.
Co-writer and director Greta Gerwig’s project — her third consecutive success behind the camera following ”Lady Bird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019) — has its merry, thoughtful way with everything Mattel’s implacable smiler in high heels has meant, pro or con, to millions. The toy company, working with everyone’s favorite new conglomerate Warner Bros. Discovery, could have played things far more safely (and less interestingly) with their cinematic spin on the doll introduced in 1959.
Instead, they let Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach create a kind of cinematic seminar, full of ideas and feelings, along with the jokes, built around the cultural impact of a plastic star called out by her own movie as an emblem of “sexualized capitalism” and “unrealizable physical ideals.”
Right there you have two examples of why “Barbie” may take folks by surprise. Some movies do everything they can to please everybody; in that regard, those movies resemble the character we have come to know here as Stereotypical Barbie, unfailing to a fault.
But Gerwig’s “Barbie” doesn’t have that tiring air of trying to be everything to everybody. With luck, and a big opening, it might actually find the audience it deserves just by being its curious, creative, buoyant self.
The premise is a familiar one: Take a beloved childhood character (toy, video game star, cartoon favorite, whatever) and introduce her to a rougher, harsher world than she’s previously known. “Barbie” begins in Barbie Land, where all the Barbies enjoy days of relentless, sunny perfection. The Kens — Ryan Gosling, in a career peak, is surreally well-cast and very funny as the primary Ken, all biceps and relational insecurity — are the decorative, marginalized ones in this world. The Barbies run things and live in midcentury modern homes seemingly painted in liquid cotton candy. (Highest honors to production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.)
Among the matriarchy, there’s President Barbie (Issa Rae), physicist Barbie (Emma Mackey) and pregnant Midge (Emerald Fennell), who was in fact introduced and then quickly discontinued by Mattel. A lot of the biggest laughs in “Barbie” come at Mattel’s expense. Many more come from Michael Cera as Ken’s devoted, furtively lovelorn friend Allan, another arguable Mattel misjudgment but, for this film’s purposes, a valuable one.
One day, something glitches for Barbie (Margot Robbie); a fleeting thought of mortality crosses her mind during a dance party, and a sliver of uncertainty enters her consciousness. (This movie’s a lot like “Don’t Worry Darling” in its setup.) Up until then, the Barbies of Barbie Land have assumed that in the real world, life for their human “owners” is as serene and confidence-instilling as it is in their own neighborhood. Now, though, Barbie, with stowaway Ken in tow, must travel to the real world to locate the human (America Ferrera), who works for the Mattel corporation — Will Ferrell plays the big, clueless boss — and who is somehow causing the disruption.
All this plays out smoothly, though the second half of “Barbie” bogs down a bit. While Barbie learns of the hostility toward the Barbie ideal among many contemporary girls in the real world, including the daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) of the Ferrera character, back home Ken and the other Kens transform the place into one big, macho man-cave. What’s next? A political maneuver to rewrite the Barbie Land constitutional laws to create a patriarchy? Yes indeed, and there goes the MAGA audience for this movie.
Gerwig’s a wizard at tone management, and at keeping the spirit lively, even when things are looking less than happily-ever-after. Have I mentioned “Barbie” is practically a musical? Ken, in particular, works out his growing sense of self-doubt in song and dance, wondering aloud if “the man behind the tan” has anything of substance to offer.
There’s a moment in a real-world sequence where Ferrera (wonderful, by the way) delivers a monologue of long-repressed frustration at how women have not been set up for relational success or a fair shake, in corporate America or as parents. Or anything, really. It’s right next door to Laura Dern’s monologue (the one that helped win her the Oscar) in Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” That one, in part, referenced Mary Magdalene, another fixture of unattainable womanhood; Ferrera’s is in the context of the phenomenally popular doll created in 1959 by Ruth Handler (played by Rhea Perlman).
Gerwig has talked about the “authentic artificiality” and hermetic soundstage magic of many movies she loves, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “A Matter of Life and Death” and the “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” dream ballets. Elements of these, and many more, inform the “Barbie” aesthetic, more so in design terms than in exhilarating camera movement or expressivity. The crucial partnership here is the one between director and performer, Gerwig and Robbie; anything Gerwig and Baumbach’s verbally dexterous script requires, from Barbie’s first teardrop to the final punchline, Robbie handles with unerring precision.
I admit it: I went into “Barbie” with no firsthand usage or any practical knowledge, even, of Barbie, or Ken, let alone Allan or Midge. “Barbie” is my first Barbie. So. It’s kind of a big deal.
“Barbie” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for suggestive references and brief language)
Running time: 1:54
How to watch: Premieres in theaters July 20
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.