How the New ‘Barbie’ Film Gives a Modern Update to the Classic Doll’s Nostalgia


Actress Margo Robbie as Barbie in the upcoming film 'Barbie,' which hits theatres in July but has already inspired both excited buzz and summer fashion trends. Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP/Canadian Press

For a film based on a doll sold in a transparent plastic box with all of its accessories on full display, the upcoming Barbie movie is shrouded in a remarkable cloak of secrecy.   

We did, however, gain a bit more insight into the film — which hits theatres on July 21 — when the first full trailer dropped this week. The trailer (see below) unveiled a parade of A-list stars in a bubble gum pink Barbie Land that embraces the nostalgia of the legendary doll while both offering a 21st century update and poking a little fun, all at once.   

Directed by Greta Gerwig and co-written by Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, the film reportedly sees the eponymous character (Margot Robbie) expelled from Barbie Land and headed for an adventure in the real world. The film’s IMDb page notes that “To live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place. Unless you have a full-on existential crisis. Or you’re a Ken.” Which suggests that the plot synopsis that Deadline reported way back in 2018 — and oft-repeated since — that “Barbie gets kicked out of Barbie Land because she’s not perfect enough, a bit eccentric and doesn’t fit in” may still be the basic gist. 

Deadline added that Barbie “then goes on an adventure in the real world and by the time she returns to Barbie Land to save it, she has gained the realization that perfection comes on the inside, not the outside, and that the key to happiness is belief in oneself, free of the obligation to adhere to some unattainable standard of perfection.”

The trailer, which sees Robbie’s Barbie heading toward the “Real World” in her trademark pink Corvette, adds some credence to this plot description. 


Updated Barbie Nostalgia


The new Barbie trailer is steeped in nostalgia for the doll, from the all-pink-everything Barbie Land set (even the sand on the beach is pink) to the pastel and neon wardrobe — which looks like it’s pulled from the closet in Barbie’s Dream House — to the aforementioned Corvette, all of which is set to the throwback soundtrack of the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun.”

And then, of course, there are the touches that poke fun at the absurdity of the doll. Take, for example, the scene where Robbie’s Barbie steps out of her high heels. Her feet, once out of the shoes, remain in the same position — toes on the ground and heels pointed in the air — just like a real Barbie doll’s plastic feet.

The film also offers a nod to the numerous incarnations of Barbie over the years. We refer to “Robbie’s Barbie” because numerous other stars also play Barbie — there’s President Barbie (Issa Rae), Mermaid Barbie (Dua Lipa), Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp), Gymnast Barbie (Kate McKinnon) and Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef), among many others. 

The diversity of the casting is to be applauded, as the film got it right on the first try — which real-life toy maker Mattel can’t quite claim. The original Barbie, which was white, debuted in 1959 and came in blond and brunette. The toy company didn’t create the first Black Barbie (that actually was given the name “Barbie”) until around 1980, though critics noted the doll still featured white physical characteristics. That same year, the toy company introduced Hispanic Barbie, sold, as Mattel noted on social media, “in the U.S. in primarily Spanish-speaking markets.”

The film’s diverse casting echoes other recent nostalgia-fuelled projects that corrected for a lack of racial representation. Think, for example, the recent A League of Their Own TV series or Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, the new Paramount+ show that acts as a prequel to the hit 1978 film. While Grease featured a predominantly white cast, the prequel series, set in 1954 — four years before the events of the film — offers, as Entertainment Weekly noted, “a version of the Grease universe that is far more diverse than the ethnically homogenous and heteronormative original.”

In Barbie, the film made inclusion a key from the start, avoiding the stumbling path to diversity the toy maker behind the doll travelled. 


Canadian Kens — and One Allen — Among the Stacked Cast


Of course, Barbie nostalgia isn’t complete without Ken. The film also features numerous versions of Ken — and two of them happen to be Canadian. 

Ryan Gosling co-stars as an insecure, rollerblading Ken — bleach blond hair and abs on full display — who competes for Robbie’s Barbie’s affections with another Ken, played by fellow Canuck actor Simu Liu. 

Gosling, 42, however, has endured some criticism from social media users for being too old to play Ken. One Twitter user went so far as to declare “Ryan Gosling literally looks 55 and is TOO OLD to play ken sorry.”

First, it’s unclear how “old” a real Ken doll, with completely plastic and un-nuanced features, is actually supposed to look. Second, the Ken doll technically debuted in 1961, making him 62 years old. So if we want to stay true to age, they’d better recast Ken with Hugh Grant, Stanley Tucci or, perhaps, Eddie Murphy — all of whom meet that age credential — in the role. Third, Gosling looks youthful, spray-tanned and chiseled in the role of Ken — and he accomplished that without the help of Mattel adding plastic abs to his torso. 

And for those worried about the 10-year age gap between Gosling and Robbie, Screen Rant argues that the film “is in the safe hands of Greta Gerwig lend[ing] hope that the movie will transcend the age gap, and will do justice to the characters of Barbie and Ken.”

Meanwhile, a third Canadian actor, Michael Cera, stars as Allen, a friend of Ken’s that, in real life, was a doll created in the ’60s and then discontinued for decades. Another discontinued doll, Midge, is brought to life in the film by actress Emerald Fennell.

He’s not Canadian, but pro wrestler turned actor John Cena, 45, plays another Ken, according to the film’s IMDb page, while more famous names play non-Barbie or Ken roles. They include Helen Mirren, 77, who narrates the film, Will Ferrell, 55, who plays the CEO of a toy company, and Rhea Perlman, 75, who is listed in the cast in an unspecified role.  

The release of the cast photos earlier this week led to a flood of memes on social media, with fans replicating the design of the photos while inserting their own faces, or the faces of other famous folk, into the promo shots. The film’s marketing machine is on it, however, releasing their own “Barbie Selfie” app that allows fans to do essentially the same thing, but with less cropping and editing involved.    


Barbie Fashion Trends 


The Barbie film, though arriving this summer, began creeping into mainstream culture last summer, after the first images of Robbie as Barbie — both official film shots and paparazzi pics from the set — were released. As Vogue noted at the time, “[Robbie] has been papped strutting in Western flares and a waistcoat; and rollerblading in stretchy ’80s neon gym gear.”

The photos led to the term “Barbiecore,” described by Vogue as a “a sickeningly sweet style shift” that “is all about looking pretty in pink.” 

Cosmopolitan added that “Barbiecore is really just about having fun with your look, whether you’re headed out for drinks, going to the office, or setting off on an international adventure. You can go full Barbie with a head-to-toe hot pink ‘fit, or just add a little sprinkle of Barbiecore with a fun pair of earrings or a mini-bag. Basically, think about what your look would be if you were part of the BCU (that’s Barbie Cinematic Universe, obviously).”

Celebs from Lizzo to Kim Kardashian to Anne Hathaway, among many others, embraced the Barbiecore aesthetic last summer, and it seems like the trend is only fixing to pick up steam as the Barbie film heads to theatres this July. 

As Italian fashion magazine Grazia summed up: “A style icon since the ’50s, Barbie has been setting trends with her pink aesthetic for multiple generations. Today, she’s still at the forefront of what’s cool.”


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