As the philosopher Mia Wallace once said:
When it comes to important subjects, there are only two ways a person can answer. Which way they chose, tells you who that person is. For instance, there are only two kinds of people in the world, Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice, tells you who you are.
And so it is with Barbie and the Disney princesses. You may think of them as inhabiting different universes—Disney princesses as movie characters and Barbie as a toy line—but over the last several years Barbie has pushed herself into the direct-to-video market in a very large way. Today there are dozens of Barbie movies that compete against their Disney counterparts for your daughters’ attention.
Disney projects are driven by a combination of artistic ambition and identity politics, but the Barbie films are exercises in cold-blooded capitalism. Mattel (which owns the Barbie franchise) cynically takes all of the things girls love—princesses, dancers, mermaids, puppies, fairies, gymnastics, ponies—and throws them into a blender with Barbie characters. A typical Barbie movie depicts, for instance, Barbie as a princess who is turned into a fairy and must then rescue a mermaid. I am not exaggerating.
Herewith is a ranking of Barbie movies, by general parental palatability*:
There are two species of movies in the Barbie genus. The first are films in which Barbie plays herself—that is, the protagonist is a blonde female named “Barbie” who has identifiable traits within a continuity of the Barbie universe. For instance, she is tall and she is a model/actress/whatever and, as a result, is both glamorous and famous.
The other species of movies uses Barbie as if the fictional character were a real actress inhabiting a role within another story. So in Barbie as the Island Princess, the only place the word “Barbie” appears is in the title credits. The character who looks and sounds like “Barbie” is instead referred to as “Rosella” and her story is entirely separate from the Barbie universe.
This conceit—that you have a movie featuring a branded, fictional character as an “actress” playing another fictional, animated character—is somewhat mind-bending. An adult analogue might be, say, a movie called “Batman’s The Three Musketeers” in which the (real) actor Christian Bale pretends to be the character Bruce Wayne who is playing the role of d’Artagnan.
You can see why children might be put off.
There’s a whole universe of these Kafka-esque Barbie movies: Barbie as Rapunzel, Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper, Barbie presents Thumbelina. There’s even—hand to God—Barbie and the Three Musketeers.
They’re all terrible. Total garbage. But Island Princess is the worst of the worst. Barbie plays a girl who was lost at sea as an infant, washed up on an uninhabited tropical island, and was raised by animals. She develops the ability to talk to animals. (So far, so good.) But when a prince stops by, it also turns out that Barbie somehow speaks perfect English. You’ll be shocked to learn that they fall in love.
But what’s really unforgiveable about Island Princess is that it’s so paint-by-numbers that it doesn’t even work as a seventy-minute babysitter because it bores all but the most devoted Barbiephiles.
If you’re trying to figure out whether or not a movie was designed by committee, having more than one colon in the title is a pretty clear tell.
B:F:M (which sounds like code from a Craigslist personals ad) is one of those movies where Barbie is playing another character—in this case, a fairy named Elina—who must leave her fairyland and journey undersea to help a bunch of mermaids. It’s even more ridiculous than it sounds.
This cinematic disaster takes meta to a new level: Barbie plays the fairy Elina, who then stars in a play-within-a-play as a “butterfly fairy” named Mariposa. She has to rescue mermaids, too.
Mattel focus groups were very big on butterflies and mermaids that year.
It’s a sequel and it involves yet more mermaids, but Mermaid Tale 2 represents the moment when the Barbie movies slowly began to improve. Barbie plays a professional surfer named Merliah Summers who is (secretly) a mermaid princess with the ability to change between human and mermaid form.
Although it’s less brain-dead than other Barbie movies, it continues the franchise’s annoying habit of creating words that sound confusingly like one another. For instance, the protagonist’s name is “Merliah.” Her mermaid kingdom is ruled by a queen who has the power to command a force called “Merillia.” There are lots of scenes where characters fret about whether or not Merliah will be able to wield the Merillia. These moments make you yearn for the Schöfferhofer.
It’s a movie about a human princess who finds a secret door into another world where she becomes a magical fairy who helps—you’ll never guess—a group of fairies and mermaids.
But it’s also a musical. And God help me if some of the songs aren’t catchy.
In all of the good entries, Barbie plays herself and in this movie Barbie and her three sisters—Skipper, Stacy, and Chelsea—find themselves stranded in Minnesota while trying to journey from Malibu to New York on Christmas Eve.
It’s full of musical earworms—I defy you to try to get the opening number out of your head. (It’s the Barbie version of “One Day More” / “La Resistance.”) The movie is also sweet, and heavy on Americana, and mostly concerned with sisterly relationships in the real world. Which makes it kind of great.
It’s the lone action movie in the franchise and it features Barbie as an out-of-continuity version of herself: She’s Barbie and she has sisters we recognize, but she’s also a semi-professional gymnast who is recruited to become a Jane Bond-style spy.
There’s nothing especially great about Spy Squad except for this: Boys will watch it with a minimal amount of grumbling because it has lasers and fights and robots that fight with lasers.
It’s basically a classic ‘80s high school movie: Barbie and her sisters visit a riding academy. The kindly owner is in financial trouble and about to lose the place. But she can pay off the mortgage if her team can win The Big Competition. The Barbie crew volunteers to help. You’ll never guess what happens next.
But the nice turn in A Pony Tale is that the students from the rival academy turn out not to be jerks and they strike up surprising friendships with Barbie and her sisters.
It’s an almost straight-up retelling of the Nicholas Cage classic, National Treasure: Barbie and her sisters visit their hometown back in Wisconsin and wind up on a hunt for historical clues that will lead to a legendary treasure. (If you knew that Barbie’s last name is Roberts and that she’s originally from Willows, Wisconsin, then you should hide your shame.)
The movie has everything—you’ll laugh, you’ll cry. There are enough thrills to give small kids a sense of catharsis and enough mystery to keep bigger kids eager to watch it over and over.
And it’s clever enough that adults can sit through it without needing to dull the pain.
* This isn’t a listicle. It’s a cry for help.