Life in plastic, it’s fantastic …it’s the Friday Blog!

Published on: 21st July 2023

This week, it’s been Barbie’s world – we just live in it. Premieres, media screenings and partner events have been taking place all week, in the run up to the movie’s official public debut today. The Toy World team attended a press preview on Monday, and having donned our best Barbie (and Ken) outfits, we sat down to see if the movie could possibly live up to the incredible hype…

Let’s just say it was an astonishing experience – whatever you think the movie is going to be, I promise you that it will be so much more than you could ever have imagined. It confounds expectations in a way that arguably no other movie based on a toy brand can claim. We knew from the trailers that it was going to be visually arresting and laugh out loud funny – and it was (I completely lost it at the part where Ken said to Barbie with a straight face: “I am going to play my guitar *at* you”).

But it was so much more than a smart, witty, post-modern take on an iconic brand – this movie deals with some major political themes such as feminism, the patriarchy and the role that Barbie plays in the complex realm of female empowerment – both positive and negative connotations (when a teenage girl tells Barbie that she has made things worse for girls in the real world, it is a real ‘wait, what’ moment). Watching the movie with three women and discussing it afterwards was certainly interesting…

What’s more, the film takes aim at some sacred cows, not least Mattel itself: when Will Ferrell stumbles through a defence of his all-male, all-white board (“Mattel had a female CEO…sometime in the 90s I think…and, er, another one”) and claims that “some of my best friends are Jewish”, you could tell that absolutely nothing was off limits.

Indeed, I don’t think you can understate the bravery of Mattel when it came to signing off elements of the script. I was told in Las Vegas that Richard Dickson had concerns about one particular scene and was told if he wanted to discuss it with the director, he should fly to the UK. When he arrived, the actors had been called to read through the scene as it would appear in the movie, and seeing it first-hand convinced him it should be left in. I don’t know which bit of dialogue it was – there are numerous examples of edgy, subversive and even downright uncomfortable dialogue. But the fact that Mattel team was prepared to take it on the chin and give the director and writers complete creative freedom is a huge factor behind the bold and unapologetic creative vision of the finished movie. Who said all corporates were control freaks and afraid of taking risks or acknowledging criticism…?

People will flock to the movie for its feelgood summer vibe, uplifting music and nostalgia for a brand that they grew up with,  but they will come out having seen a very different movie to the one they expected. Sure, it’s very funny, but it is also powerful, and extremely poignant in places (Rhea Pearlman is incredible as Ruth Handler, and America Ferrera’s monologue is deeply moving).

And to clear up a question you may now be wondering – no, it’s not really a movie for younger kids. But I am confident that kids will pick up on all the noise around the movie regardless. Just as Stitch sales in recent years have arguably had little to do with the original Lilo & Stitch movie, so the halo effect surrounding Barbie will surely result in an increase in sales for the brand. But – and this is a big but – this movie is not a 90 minute commercial for a doll and licensed products – in fact, it is as far removed from that as it gets. Anyone who has written that has either not seen the movie or knew what they wanted to write before they wrote it.

The film is, ultimately, a triumph. Your daughters will love it, your sons should see it – if only so they don’t make the mistake of playing their guitar *at* a girl at some stage in the future (thank goodness I was the singer not the guitarist, or I might have become a little paranoid at that point).

There’s another movie influenced by toys to keep an eye out for next week – The Beanie Bubble, the story of Ty Warner and Beanie Babies, which arrives on Apple TV on 28th July. Having watched the trailer, it’s another movie that appears to have taken a very unflinching approach to its subject matter. I am certainly looking forward to hearing the story of the rise of Beanie Babies (warts and all), and with the Ty range already enjoying a very good year, this is surely going to give it another nice boost.

Elsewhere in the real world, it was great to announce that the London Toy Fair is already over 90% sold out, with the BTHA looking to expand the space on offer for the 70th anniversary show in January. Existing exhibitors are on board, a few recent drop-outs are said to be returning (hopefully more news on that soon) and a host of first-time exhibitors have applied for space. This is excellent news. When it comes to shows, you cannot beat clarity and being able to plan ahead – and it is lovely to see the show continuing to thrive when there is uncertainty in some other quarters.

Finally, could there be one last twist in the tale of Wilko? A retailer that so many feel has fallen short of its potential in recent years, the board is apparently now sounding out potential buyers for the business, including ‘a number of large general merchandise chains’. With the business said to ‘need to source sufficient additional capital in the next month in order to allay concerns about its future’, it seems that selling a controlling stake could be an alternative strategy if sufficient funds can’t be raised. And that could raise the intriguing prospect of toys returning to the aisles – watch this space…

If you’re off to watch the Barbie movie over the weekend, enjoy – let me know what you (and your kids) think. Today really is the day the world turns pink.