In​ the middle of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach), a character makes a horrible discovery about reality: it keeps changing. This may seem obvious and is only part of the truth anyway. One of reality’s other problems is that it doesn’t change enough. But we understand the horror.

If we had been born into a place designed to exclude change and many other inconveniences, a place where we didn’t have to walk to our sports car or drive it, but could just float out of our lovely house and let the vehicle take us wherever we wanted to go, we might not care to think of alternatives. This is a world where ‘pink goes with everything,’ as Barbieland’s national anthem says. One of the film’s best comic renderings of this mental condition occurs when Barbie and Ken (brilliantly played by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling) visit reality, also known as Los Angeles. Ken likes the idea of men being respected and powerful, not just dolls, and thinks he can become a lawyer or a business executive by simply asking someone to call him these things. The very idea of qualifications and training baffles him, and he keeps making sarcastic jokes about degrees and schools. He is excited by the notion of patriarchy, and introduces it to Barbieland as a coup d’état in favour of the hitherto powerless, supplementary blokes.

The characters in Barbieland have already heard of our world: when Barbie and Ken set out on their journey, a friend shouts ‘Good luck in reality!’ There have been breaches of the partitions before – often enough that a character called Weird Barbie, played by Kate McKinnon, has become an adviser on how to make the crossing. And often enough for a shock to ripple through a crowd of dolls when Robbie, literally known as Stereotypical Barbie, kicks off the movie’s narrative action by raising an awkward question: ‘Do you guys ever think about dying?’ She is asking this because cold water came out of her shower that morning (it’s Barbieland; we can’t see any water at all), her feet no longer have their invisible high heels, and she’s beginning to develop a touch of cellulite. Theoretically, perhaps, her compatriots ought not to understand the question, but they plainly do, and the story is much better this way.

The same double logic – inhabiting a fantasy and betraying it – governs the film in many effective ways. In the difference between how aspects of reality creep into Barbieland, for example, and how characters travel between the two zones. The creeping happens because women in reality no longer believe in the old, gendered dreams represented by the dolls. When Robbie on her journey approaches a group of young girls, she simpers and smiles in the way she thinks she is supposed to, and the girls are horrified. They left such dolls behind long ago. One of them calls Robbie a fascist. Again, Robbie should probably not know what this means. But she does, and is devastated. And soon she meets Gloria (America Ferrera), the woman who has brought her here, the source of her trouble at home. Gloria works at the Mattel company as a receptionist – all the other employees we meet are men – and has been returning in her memory to the days when she had a Barbie doll, revising the scenario, sketching anxious Barbies as she might like to have them for company now. This is the imagining that has turned the water in Robbie’s shower cold. Later, Gloria makes a great hyperbolic speech about what it means to be a woman in a world governed by the imagination of men. A sort of riff on the Virginia Woolf of Three Guineas.

But then the journey itself abandons all seriousness and psychology and becomes pure cartoon. How else would we imagine an excursion out of Barbieland? Robbie and Gosling start out in her car, and as the vehicle crosses the frame it turns into another mode of transport and then another: car to sled to rocket to roller skates. They arrive at Venice Beach. The movie mounts a similar attack on its own earnestness when Robbie, having learned all kinds of terrible lessons about both worlds, feels ugly and worthless. Gloria tells her that this is all part of becoming human, and in the soundtrack the voice of Helen Mirren, our intermittent narrator, says ‘Note to filmmakers: Margot Robbie is not the right person to cast to make this point.’ Meaning Robbie looks great in any mood and disproves the moral point. Or, locates the point in its appropriate movie space.

Predictably, according to the gender tale the film is telling, Gosling has a fun time in reality. He dresses up as a cowboy and wanders around, picking up a few books on male supremacy and a fair amount of admiration. He is amazed by the respect he is shown, and when he gets home boasts of the fact that one woman even asked him what time it was. This is very different from the state of affairs in Barbieland, where he can never get Robbie’s full attention because she is always on her way to a party.

Things don’t go so well for Robbie in this strange place. The FBI identifies her as a dangerous alien, and reports her to Mattel, the company that makes and distributes Barbie and Ken dolls. A long comic sequence begins here, starring Will Ferrell as the president of the company, surrounded by an all-male board of directors. He speaks proudly, and against all the evidence, of the company’s dedication to the power and presence of women. He himself has a mother, he says, and an aunt. And there has been at least one woman on the board since the company’s founding in 1945. He thinks the solution to the Robbie problem is to put her in a box for life-size Barbies, and he does. She escapes, though, and he and the board trail after her back to Barbieland. Once there he thinks every idea for modernising the community is ‘terrible’, only to be corrected by a member of the board: this new stuff is good for business. There are probably echoes of an actual dialogue with Mattel here. The firm had a slump between 2014 and 2016. Then there was something of a comeback, and the immense commercial success of the film is not going to do Mattel any harm.

Robbie, meanwhile, before she leaves reality, has what is certainly the most interesting encounter in the movie. She meets her maker, although she doesn’t know this is what’s happening. Escaping her pursuers in the Mattel building, she finds herself in a secret apartment where a kind old lady, played by Rhea Perlman, offers her a cup of tea. She says her name is Ruth, and we later learn that she is the ghost of somebody who has been dead for years. Mattel created this apartment for her because she was Ruth Handler, who invented the Barbie Doll in 1959. Later the friendly ghost shows up in Barbieland to help create the new, tolerant female republic.

The film gets a little lost at times, as if it had too many storylines to play with and won’t let any of them go. At the end it offers a well-meaning but rather dogged sermon about how we all, denizens of whatever kind of world, need to learn to be ourselves. Ken can’t be ‘just Ken’, an afterthought to Barbie. We have to learn to say not ‘It’s Barbie and Ken,’ but ‘It’s Barbie and it’s Ken.’ Gosling weeps at the proposition, and so might we, for other reasons.

But there are many great jokes in the film. In the background of Barbieland is a famous mountain, also found in South Dakota and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In reality the faces of four American presidents are carved out of the rock. In the early part of the film the faces are all those of women. When Gosling and his companions take over the place the faces are those of horses.

And then there is the music, by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, which goes way beyond the praise of pink. There are major ballets, for women at the start, for men at the end, and it is wonderful to see a war zone – men induced by women to fight with other men – turn into West Side Story. Gerwig herself says she was thinking of The Red Shoes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and a clip from Grease appears at one point. The music serves as a metaphor as well as the right kind of noise. A person who sings and dances may be just the same person as the one who talks and walks, but we recognise the idealising movement. This is who they want to be or ought to be. Or, more negatively perhaps, who they are programmed to be. ‘Orchestrated’ would be kinder, leaving more doors open for movie reality.

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