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‘Barbie’ delivers a feminist message dressed up in all the right accessories

<i>Warner Bros. Pictures</i><br/>Margot Robbie stars in
Warner Bros. Pictures
Margot Robbie stars in "Barbie."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — “Barbie” comes roaring out of the gate with an inventiveness and energy the movie perhaps inevitably can’t sustain. Amid all the hype that has made its release an increasingly rare movie-going occasion, director Greta Gerwig’s film proves an admirably ambitious attempt to ponder where Barbie fits in the 21st century – less than it could be, but pretty close to being what it should be.

Gerwig (who shares script credit with her partner, Noah Baumbach) has certainly put together all the right accessories, starting with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, in a movie whose brightly colored Barbie Land is awash in the kind of details (most of them pink) that will likely reward second viewings.

Still, the closest kin would probably be “The Lego Movie,” which similarly took a familiar toy and built a kind of existential crisis around it. While “Barbie” goes the live-action route, there’s an intermittently cartoonish quality to that, and some clunky elements (Will Ferrell’s over-the-top turn as Mattel’s CEO foremost among them, a common link between the two films) weighing down, or at least diluting, the clever ones.

The cleverest bits come early, with a Helen Mirren narration and an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But after introducing Barbie Land, occupied by various versions of Barbie and Ken living in anatomically neutered bliss, the film kicks into gear when Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie (not to be confused with the more specific variations) begins having strange thoughts, which almost literally shake her to her foundation.

At the same time, Gosling’s Ken wrestles with his relevance, and the matter of being little more than Barbie’s appendage, someone who wouldn’t exist without an ampersand.

Barbie’s awakening prompts an escape to the Real World, and different epiphanies for both her and Ken regarding its contrast to the idealized, female-centric realm in which they live.

The fewer details one knows going in the better, but the search for answers takes Barbie to Mattel, where she encounters a human employee (America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter (“65’s” Ariana Greenblatt), the latter having outgrown her Barbie phase, which ties in with the film’s overt feminist message and desire to put Barbie in a broader sociological context.

The juxtaposition of those more thoughtful elements with the sheer giddiness elsewhere – alternating between the serious and the silly, between art and commerce – doesn’t always quite mesh or feel as fresh as it might.

Then again, the “Toy Story” spin on Barbie and Ken set a high bar in terms of satirizing the popular doll, and give Gerwig (an Oscar nominee for her acclaimed film “Lady Bird”) credit for taking something that could easily have been two-dimensional and endeavoring to make it mean something, beyond the musical numbers and social media posts musing about how Gosling got those abs.

The overall casting is also impressive, though relatively few of the Barbies and Kens have a whole lot to do, with Simu Liu (of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi”) one of the more notable exceptions as Ken’s sort-of rival.

On the plus side, Gerwig and Baumbach pepper the script with smart pop-culture references (including one about “Justice League” and its fans), and the movie briskly clocks in under two hours, by itself an asset with the latest “Mission: Impossible” and “Oppenheimer” running 163 and 180 minutes, respectively.

“Barbie’s” political underpinnings will surely prompt discussion, in part, frankly, as another avenue for news outlets to tap into the abundant media heat surrounding it. That said, much of the audience will likely be inclined to root for a movie (and thus accentuate the positive) that many were so eager to see.

The fact that “Barbie’s” marketing campaign has organically taken on a life of its own serves as a sign of the times, where anything worth doing often appears worth overdoing. Still, there’s an enjoyable movie buried under all that hype, especially for those receptive to unwrapping the neatly packaged real-world themes while watching “Barbie” strut her stuff.

“Barbie” premieres July 21 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13. (The film is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)

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