By Andrew Jenck
Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, a documentary, depicts Mattel’s marketing team attempting to adapt Barbie to modern times, altering the doll’s body template to have more realistic proportions and a diverse set of body types. It is a closer look at a company’s inner workings, showing a willingness by Mattel to acknowledge criticisms of the brand while maintaining its mass production. Now adapting the toy line to a blockbuster film, Mattel seeks to sell this new strategy to audiences through a self-aware comedy, to vindicate lovers of Barbie and ease the skeptics. Such is typical American business, but films, being products themselves, are filtered through the filmmakers. Greta Gerwig, an indie director taking her first big budget picture, alongside partner and co-writer Noah Bombach work as mediators, giving Mattel the brand promotion and PR they desire while crafting a whimsical, visceral experience that is both unbounded and unashamed in its premise. Barbie is not a great film because it divorces itself from the brand; instead by fully encompassing it.
Immediately establishing its screwball tone and aesthetics, the setting of Barbie Land has a sense of artificiality, with its varying shades of pink and tacky sets yet fully accepted by the characters. The initiating event that puts the story in motion is a sudden jolt, purposefully coming out of nowhere, both comedic and sending the titular character into questioning her existence. Margot Robbie is in top form in the lead, evoking the doll’s stereotypical traits with beaming energy; while such enthusiasm is challenged by complications surrounding her world. Ryan Gossling utilizes his hidden comedic chops as Ken, bombastic yet graceful with such humor revealing his internal problems. Comedy is best used when enhancing character, best shown in real world scenes. Gerwig retains her voice in the mundane setting with the stark contrast of Barbie’s naivety and the harsh truths of reality.
Themes are transparent, though Barbie itself has never been subtle. Hence Gerwig’s blatant approach feels more genuine and self-acknowledging the brand’s reinvention strategy. One speech by a teenage girl could have been a cynical jab at Mattel’s critics, but certain events give her some justification and is complimented by her mother’s more mature speech. Being an adult, the mom has a more complete understanding, offering some levity in working through her life as a woman. This is not spoon-feeding the audience; rather wearing its heart on its sleeve.
A case of hypocrisy can be made as the film challenges the status quo while being a corporate product. Mattel itself has somewhat of an antagonistic role but is not the primary villain. There’s commentary on women lacking social equality yet still encouraging people to support a large conglomerate. Although valid criticisms, Gerwig and Bombach are wise in centering Barbie’s identity crisis. Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie depicted the designers’ struggles to give Barbie a new image while still maintaining its preexisting aesthetics. Such sentiment is woven into the film creatively, mirroring girls’ transition into adulthood, while still cherishing memories surrounding the artificial products. It is a more realistic goal maneuvering through barriers, as Mattel tries to break out of stereotypes while still being fashion-based.
Barbie is not a rejection of the brand or sneaking a jab at Mattel under their noses, but is, much like the central character, working within its confines to create a hilarious, well rounded, and occasionally profound picture. It’s as much of a critique as it is reverent of the toy, giving the boost the company desires while still creatively satisfying. Indie films with artistic freedom can be great but it is as much of an accomplishment of striking a balance of business and artistry, creating an all-accessible film that is emotionally invested in a way that other films tend to shy away from. Ideas can be altered while remaining the same at their core, just as Gerwig molds into something appeasing her producers while still emobdying her own accomplishment.