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Does the new 'Barbie' movie live up to the hype?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Barbie" is here. As if you somehow missed this news, we're talking about the film starring Margot Robbie as one of many Barbies and Ryan Gosling as one of many Kens living among a lot of pink in Barbie Land. But trouble arises when Barbie - the one played by Robbie - has an existential crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This is the best day ever.

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Barbie) It is the best day ever. So was yesterday. And so is tomorrow and every day from now until forever.

DUA LIPA: (Singing) I could dance.

ROBBIE: (As Barbie) You guys ever think about dying?

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCH)

MARTIN: So she sets out on a journey from Barbie Land to the real world in a quest for, well, meaning. The movie comes out today, but our friends at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour got a peek. And we're asking them if the movie truly lives up to the hype. Stephen Thompson, Linda Holmes, Aisha Harris talked about it with film critic and journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: There are loads of jokes, loads of pink sets, loads of needle drops and original songs and loads of whatever is going on with Ryan Gosling's hair. "Barbie" was directed by Greta Gerwig, who also directed "Lady Bird" and "Little Women," and it was written by Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach. "Barbie" is in theaters now. Bedatri D. Choudhury, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Barbie"?

BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Oof. I think it's a lot. Did I have a lot of fun? Yes, I did. But it's still, like - it doesn't sit very well, but in a very fun way.

THOMPSON: How do you mean doesn't sit very well?

CHOUDHURY: I don't know. And, like, I'd love to talk more about this with you guys. Like, the first thing I thought when I came out of the theater was, is it camp? And that for me as a culture journalist and film critic is the most horrific question because if it's camp and you don't get it, that's, like, the worst thing. You might as well stop writing about films.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: That's a great point.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. Having said that, I had so much fun. Like, I grew up in the '90s. I had these dolls. So they do manage to make the ride a lot of fun.

THOMPSON: OK. How about you, Holmesy (ph)?

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I had so much fun at this movie. I think they executed it with enormous panache in terms of the production design. I really love the performances. I think Margot Robbie is surprisingly poignant in this movie, which you kind of will understand better, I think, once you've seen it. But, you know, like Bedatri, I feel conflicted about everything it's trying to say. There is a lot of textual critique of patriarchy and critique of capitalism and critique of Mattel.

CHOUDHURY: LOL.

HOLMES: And it's like, what does it mean to have these textual critiques when all the extratextual stuff, including how the movie was made, how the movie is being marketed, who the movie is going to benefit - all of that stuff is all taking place firmly within all of these systems because, for example, when you're doing critique of Mattel and its very male leadership, that very male leadership wouldn't have signed off on this movie if they thought it was going to hurt them.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

HOLMES: But at the same time, I loved looking at this movie. I think the performances, like I said, are great. I had a wonderful time, and I think it's super funny.

THOMPSON: Aisha Harris, what did you think of "Barbie"?

HARRIS: I mean, there is, of course, that tension between art and commerce that is always going to exist. And there are ways and examples of this where it can really, really, really work. See "The Lego Movie." The difference between this and "The Lego Movie" is that as far as I can remember, Lego did not have as nearly as much baggage as Barbie does and Barbie comes with. And so under that tension between art and commerce, you also have this sort of added layer of tension between the sharp political critique of the system while functioning explicitly as a product of that system. You know, I really had a lot of fun with this. What I think puts it over the top for me or makes it work even when it doesn't always work for me or work overall are the performances, is the fact that Greta Gerwig, for me, has been able to take all of these sort of familiar stories in her previous directorial movies and bring something new and interesting to them. And I do think it's good, actually, with a lot of buts and a lot of caveats.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And I guess one of my reactions to that is like, what is the alternative? How would you get around the critiques that we've kind of leveled in this conversation so far? Like, you're not going to make a Barbie movie without Mattel's sign off. Capitalism has its tendrils in every facet of major moviemaking.

HOLMES: I mean, the alternative's other movies.

HARRIS: Yes.

HOLMES: You know?

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: I also think alternative is that you don't put in so much money into one film. It's just...

THOMPSON: Sure.

CHOUDHURY: ...Mind-boggling for me.

THOMPSON: I guess it's just interesting. There's a scene in this movie that really stands out. There's a monologue in this film in which a character kind of lays out the really complex web of pressures on women in society. And you're expected to do this, but not this and this, but not this. And you have to push for things but not push too hard. And it's kind of a little bit of a Being a Woman 101.

HARRIS: Yes, very much.

THOMPSON: It's pretty blunt. Many would argue it's pretty necessary to put it in this film. It's also kind of a meta commentary on what this movie is trying to do, right? This movie is trying to do so, so much and balance these very, very, very contradictory impulses. They want to comment on the patriarchy and society and feminism while still being a big mainstream movie. It's interesting to me that this film at one point kind of stops and almost lays out the enormous task that it has given itself.

HOLMES: Yeah. But I think if you are a woman, you are a woman, and you don't have the option of deciding like, I'm just not going to be a woman because the kind of idea of that is too complicated. Whereas you can decide, I'm not going to make a Barbie movie. And so I think the stakes are a little bit different. But I do think the film is setting up a parallel between what it's like to try to be a woman and what it's like to try to be a Barbie movie. I'm not sure I...

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...See that parallel. One of the things I think is interesting is that this film to me is a really good example of how many different crafts are involved in...

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Making a film really vital and wonderful because the production design of this is tremendous. The supporting performances and, thus, the casting are tremendous - you know, music supervision.

THOMPSON: Oh, boy. Get me started.

HOLMES: I think it's lovely to have a film come out that really puts the spotlight on not just the writing and not just the acting, although I think both are really strong, but every kind of element of this film. You can see so many crafts really popping in this movie, and that was something I appreciated a lot.

AQUA: (Singing) I'm a Barbie girl in the Barbie world.

MARTIN: That was Pop Culture Happy Hour hosts Linda Holmes, Aisha Harris and Stephen Thompson, along with film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.