If true originality even exists in pop culture it is exceedingly rare. Just about everything is built upon the bones of something else but some movies are more open than others about acknowledging their influences. So, it should not come as a surprise that Barbie, a billion-dollar movie of the moment based on a sixty-four-year-old line of popular fashion dolls, builds upon the ideas of earlier movies about the secret lives and surprisingly complicated emotions of dolls, toys, and plastic construction toys.
Without detracting from the brilliance of Barbie — it’s a great film — it seems to owe a sizable debt to the critically acclaimed 2014 blockbuster The Lego Movie as well as more than one of the Toy Story sequels. Let's dig into how Barbie borrows from other great family movies, and how it smartly makes some of those tropes seem brand new.
First of all, casting Will Ferrell in Barbie puts him in a suspiciously similar role to the one he played in 2014. In The Lego Movie Ferrell played President Business/Lord Business. He’s the plastic personification of the soul-crushing emptiness of capitalism and conformity but Ferrell also figures prominently in the film’s live-action as the order-obsessed father of a little boy who just wants to have fun with Legos without having to follow all the rules. Fast-forward to Barbie: In this movie, Ferrell is the CEO of Mattel as well as the film’s primary antagonist. He’s once again cast as a bad guy intent on stamping out individuality and independent thinking for the sake of his corporation’s bottom line and future. Recently, the creators of The Lego Movie — Chris Miller and Phil Lord — have responded to an online fan theory that Ferrell is literally playing the exact same character again, joking that: “we imagined it and designed it from the beginning.”
But, Barbie’s resemblance to The Lego Movie goes beyond the role Ferrell plays in both films. Barbie and The Lego Movie both center on characters who begin their hero’s journey embodying their toy line in its purest form. Margot Robbie’s Barbie is literally named Stereotypical Barbie. She is Barbie to the nth degree, the ultimate blonde fashion plate in pink before an existential crisis causes her to leave her perfect, shiny world for one that’s much more complicated and dark but also real and satisfying in a way that her shimmering fantasy utopia is not. The Lego Movie’s Emmitt, meanwhile, who is voiced by Christopher Platt — before the actor voicing every popular character became a ubiquitous cliché — is an anonymous plastic construction worker excited to live in a shiny, gleaming plastic paradise.
The two protagonists begin their films in very similar places, too. They aren’t just happy; they’re ecstatic. Why wouldn’t they be? To borrow the title of The Lego Movie’s Oscar-nominated Tegan & Sara/The Lonely Island tune, everything is awesome.
Things are TOO awesome, in fact. There’s something creepy and inhuman about the glossy perfection of Emmitt and Barbie’s world. Then a snake slithers into their toy world Garden of Eden in the form of self-consciousness and a life-changing awareness of their own mortality and the mortality of those around them. Barbie suddenly starts thinking about death because death is on the mind of the woman playing with her while Emmitt finds something called The Piece of Resistance that opens his tiny brain to something much greater than the small, predictable world he knows.
Barbie and Emmitt each learn from a mentor who explains how the world actually works. In Barbie it’s Kate McKinnon’s wise oddball Weird Barbie; in The Lego Movie, it’s Morgan Freeman’s wizardly Vitruvius. The heroes of The Lego Movie and Barbie go to the real world on journeys of self-discovery that also involve saving their home worlds.
Barbie’s other primary inspiration is even more popular, more influential, and more iconic: the Toy Story franchise. Pixar’s multi-billion dollar baby has left such a huge cultural footprint that it’s difficult to tell a story about toys cinematically without borrowing extensively from it.
Ironically, co-screenwriter Joss Whedon wanted Barbie to play a big role in 1996’s Toy Story but a skittish Mattel didn’t think a CGI cartoon would work so they didn’t license the character to Pixar.
Mattel undoubtedly came to regret the decision the same way Mars regretted not licensing M&Ms for a weird movie about a creepy-looking alien name E.T. The toy giant was happy to license Barbie for Toy Story 2, where she was voiced by Jodi Benson of The Little Mermaid fame but Barbie didn’t come into her own in this rich world until Toy Story 3.
Toy Story 3 ropes Ken into the story, and Michael Keaton is just as inspired a choice to play Barbie’s lightweight sidekick as Gosling. His take on the character is largely the same as Gosling’s too: he’s a clothing-obsessed dandy who shares scarves with Barbie and has a magical closet filled with a half century’s worth of flamboyant outfits and outlandish costumes, each more ostentatious than the last.
Ken’s primary look here is borrowed from Animal Lovin' Ken, a real-life 1988 Ken variation with an ascot and a chimpanzee (not unlike Michael Jackson and Bubbles!) and a deliciously trashy light blue ensemble. But that can’t be enough for a man as shallow and stylish as Ken, so he trots out a plethora of outfits based on real Ken lines, including “Cool Times”, “Tennis Whites”, “Sun Sensation” and “Mission to Mars.”
In this Ken’s case, at least clothes definitely do make the man or at least the plastic accessory. Toy Story 3’s Ken may be the lightest of lightweights and live for his plastic soulmate, dream house, and wardrobe yet he has a villainous quality just like Ryan Gosling’s instantly iconic take on the character.
Gosling’s Ken gets bro-pilled and transforms Barbie’s matriarchal paradise into a dystopian man cave for the emotionally stunted to bro-out. In Toy Story 3, Ken is a henchman and associate of the villainous Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty). Lotso, as he is known, is a cuddly pink bear that smells like strawberries and has the avuncular manner of a warmer Wilford Brimley. But behind the kindly exterior Lotso is a cruel, power-obsessed sadist who tricks and manipulates Woody, Buzz, and the gang for his own sinister purposes. Ken isn’t a free thinker or a deep thinker here so he just sort of goes along with the evil machinations of his stronger-willed contemporaries at the daycare center where much of Toy Story 3 takes place.
This Ken eventually reforms and joins the forces of good, but he spends most of the film living a double life he keeps from Barbie. Unlike the new Barbie, however, Barbie is definitely into Ken and Ken is definitely into Barbie. They are made for one another, literally and metaphorically, although Ken takes umbrage at being described as a human accessory for Barbie, no different, really, than a purse.
Toy Story 3 shares with Barbie the characters of Barbie and Ken but also an obsession with death unusual even for a children’s movie. Again, Barbie’s curiosity about death is the catalyst for her leaving her perfect world for our ferociously imperfect realm. Death is seemingly everywhere in Toy Story 3, too! Being cavalierly tossed aside by their now college-age owner Andy for less childish things is a form of death. So is a nightmare-inducing scene where the lovable gang of toys is nearly demolished in an incinerator that offers a little slice of hell, raging fires, certain doom, infinite pain, and all.
Toy Story 3 proved that a second sequel to a movie partially based on a number of popular pre-existing children’s toys like Mr. Potato Head could be ambitious, surprisingly moving, and substantive art as well as crackerjack entertainment. It surprised no one by winning the Best Animated Film Oscar but also scored nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Film, both of which are rare for animated films and sequels. It earned that bonus acclaim by working on a dramatic and metaphorical level as well as a film that children can both enjoy and be mildly traumatized by.
Now, Toy Story 3 and The Lego Movie aren’t Barbie’s only influences, of course. The culture clash comedy that ensues when Barbie and Ken leave their world and enter ours bears a distinct resemblance to the day-glo pop goofiness of 1996’s The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel. But, not crediting Greta Gerwig’s directing talents or Noah Baumbach’s writing chops would be unfair.
Barbie smartly synthesizes all of its seminal influences into something wildly entertaining and bold that feels at once exhilaratingly new and soothingly familiar. If you loved Barbie, then revisiting both The Lego Movie and Toy Story 3 will not only be entertaining but for you and your kids, perhaps, a little educational, too.