Barbenheimer smashed the box office—as I thought, the actual opening weekend box office for both Barbie and Oppenheimer was higher than the estimates—which means we are now in for a nightmare of toy movies hoping to catch Barbie’s lightning in a bottle. (Funny how off the back of Oppenheimer, no one is racing to license biographies of luminaries like Einstein, Tesla, or Ada Lovelace, even though all would make excellent cinematic subjects.) Mattel, parent company of Barbie and the villain of Barbie, is prepared to Barbify the movies, with FOURTEEN projects in “active development”, including a Barney movie with Daniel Kaluuya, a Hot Wheels movie, and a movie inspired by the American Girl dolls (even though SNL got there first).
There is also a Polly Pocket movie written by Lena Dunham, who will also direct, assuming it gets made, which has Lily Collins lined up to star as the micro-doll. I know that after The Lego Movie and Barbie, we should remain open to these IP-driven toy movies working out, but at the same time, my reaction to a Polly Pocket movie starring Lily Collins and written/directed by Lena Dunham is, Okay….?
I really liked the Polly Pocket compacts when I was kid, because there is something inherently fun about tiny things that should be big, and a movie would have plenty of opportunities for size-based visual gags—which was one of the simple pleasures of the Ant-Man movies, at least until Quantumania ruined it—but I am not sold on this. I think it’s because the reaction to the early news that Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig were teaming up for a Barbie movie just had so much raw “WTF” energy. We were all immediately curious to see what Gerwig, writing with her partner Noah Baumbach, would bring to Barbie, and Robbie was PERFECT casting. I can easily see Lily Collins playing a doll, but at the same time, I do not think of her as an actor the caliber of Margot Robbie.
This is the inflection point, though, for the toy movies. Mattel wants a “Mattel cinematic universe”, and while the entire exercise is crassly commercial, if they truly are committed to creator-driven visions, they might actually end up with something more interesting than not. But at the same time, I am reminded of how everyone ran off the Young Adult cliff after Twilight’s surprise success, leading to a series of increasingly bland, derivative films until we were left with the wreckage of the Divergent franchise.
One key component of Barbie is how hard the film clowns on Mattel, which lends it a subversive edge within its own corporate context. But will Mattel be happy to be the butt of the joke, if it means making a series of critically and commercially successful films? Or will they inevitably exert more and more control, forcing films to adhere to a corporate vision, squeezing the life and creativity out of the films until there is nothing left but bland advertisements for nostalgia-driven pablum? Only time will tell!