Gerwig brims with references and influences, many of which she marshaled to make the movie “authentically artificial,” with everything “fake, but really fake” — make-believe and yet tangible, tactile, like playing with an actual toy. She called Peter Weir, the director of “The Truman Show,” to ask how to “execute something that’s both artificial and emotional at the same time.” She tried to channel musicals like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” which she says do the same. Many of the special effects were based on the analog techniques of 1959, a year chosen because that’s when Barbie debuted. The mermaid Barbies we see splish-splashing behind Jeff Koons-esque plastic waves are being hoisted by a rig like a seesaw. The blue expanse hovering over Barbieland is not green screen; it’s a vast backdrop of painted sky.
“Barbie” has a bigger scope, budget and potential audience than any of Gerwig’s previous work. This was part of its appeal: Gerwig has been scaling up, intentionally. And yet she remains focused on characters’ baby-stepping into adulthood. (Her next project is a Netflix adaptation of the Narnia universe.) The protagonists she played in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” — collaborations with Baumbach — would probably make arch remarks about a Barbie I.P. blockbuster, but they, too, were figuring out who they were. So were the heroines of Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” loosely inspired by her own Sacramento childhood, and her follow-up, “Little Women,” based on her favorite childhood book.
“Barbie,” too, is a coming-of-age story; the figure coming of age just happens to be a full-grown piece of plastic. “Little Women” would have been a fine alternate title for it. Same with “Mothers & Daughters,” a working title for “Lady Bird.” For Barbie, as in both those other films, growing up is a matriarchal affair. It is something you do with your mother, your sisters, your aunties. Or, in Barbie’s case, with the women threaded through your product history.
In the beginning, there was Ruth Handler, eavesdropping on her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls. As little Barbie Handler and a friend dressed the cutouts in different outfits, they imagined their careers and personalities. Her mother’s quite feminist-sounding insight was that there were no three-dimensional dolls that let girls explore being grown women, only baby dolls that encouraged them to practice motherhood.
Handler and her husband, Elliot, were already running Mattel, a toy company they founded in their California garage in 1945. She ran the business, and he came up with the toys. Her proposal for a non-baby doll stalled until, traveling in Switzerland, she came upon a potential prototype. The Bild Lilli was a novelty toy, modeled on a blond vixen from a West German comic strip, that could be used to accessorize a grown man’s car, like Playboy-silhouette mud flaps. Handler brought some home as proof of concept. Manufacturers, retailers and even Mattel weren’t sure mothers would buy their daughters a toy with such a va-va-voom figure, but the company was advised by a famous Freudian marketing consultant that moms could be neutralized if they thought Barbie was teaching proper comportment. They might not like her sexual precocity, but they would put up with it to have her model mainstream femininity.