Barbie is what you get when a major Hollywood studio gives an interesting filmmaker a lot of money to address a topic that’s important to them. Like The LEGO Movie, it transcends being a feature-length toy commercial by using its subject to get at bigger ideas. Director Greta Gerwig is smart, and she has a crystal-clear vision of the story she wants to tell. Together with writing partner Noah Baumbach, she takes the eternally popular Mattel doll and uses it to spin a masterful social satire.

Barbie (a perfectly cast Margot Robbie) wakes up in her Dream House every day and says hello to all the other Barbies in Barbie Land. Another Barbie (Issa Rae) is president. The Supreme Court consists entirely of Barbies. They perform a wide array of occupations, from construction worker to astronaut. Every day is good for them, filled with happiness, music, and the companionship of dutiful Kens, including the main one, played by Ryan Gosling. But then Barbie begins having weird thoughts about death, leading to a full-on existential crisis. She visits the worn-out “Weird Barbie” (Kate McKinnon), who advises her to travel to the real world, find the sad little girl playing with her, and help that girl find happiness. Only then can life go back to normal.

It is here that Barbie begins working on two levels. The first is a satire of the toy itself. The movie touches on the Barbie conundrum. On one hand, the doll has evolved over the decades, taking on dozens of jobs and inspiring girls to believe in their own abilities. On the other, as the daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) of a Mattel employee (America Ferrera) says, she has also represented an unrealistic idea of feminine beauty, making women feel inferior in the process. That’s a sharp note. The movie additionally pokes fun at Barbie’s famous wardrobe and accessories, other dolls in the series (like the pregnant Midge), and the way Ken has always been comparatively bland, with little to distinguish him. Huge laughs arise from the affectionate self-mocking humor.

The other level is deeper. When Barbie and Ken make it to the real world, both realize how different it is from Barbie Land. She becomes frustrated to discover the culture here is male dominated. For example, a Mattel boardroom consisting entirely of men – and led by Will Ferrell – makes business decisions related to Barbie dolls. Not a single woman is in sight. Ken, meanwhile, becomes fascinated by the concept of a patriarchy and starts to wonder how he can bring a piece of it back home. Gerwig comedically exposes the double standards, inequalities, and unfair demands women in contemporary society regularly face. Her approach gets you thinking, although the hilarious jokes guarantee an overall sense of fun is never lost.

A bold point of view is what elevates Barbie. The picture is fundamentally about something. The doll’s iconic status becomes a way to explore how masculine and feminine roles have/have not changed over the decades. While you might expect Gerwig to end her story with an unabashed girl-power message, she actually goes in a slightly different direction, inferring a belief in individuality and the importance of not putting limitations on that. So yes, this is definitely a movie with a feminist perspective, but more than that, it’s a movie that celebrates the potential residing within all of us, regardless of gender. After two hours of laughter, you go home feeling positive about yourself.

Superb production design brings Barbie Land vividly to life. Everything about it is immaculate and playful. Each member of the cast delivers a pitch-perfect performance, with Robbie and Gosling in particular devising a potent comic chemistry between their characters. A hip soundtrack adds to the impact, most notably Lizzo’s opening theme song and Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” which factors into a prominent scene. Barbie is pure entertainment from beginning to end. Better still, it’s entertainment with underlying substance, and that makes the film even more satisfying.

out of four

Barbie is rated PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.