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Across the Barbie-Verse: The many false starts in getting Mattel's iconic doll to the screen

Before Margot Robbie, there was Anne Hathaway and Amy Schumer...

Image credit: Warner Bros. Studios

If it feels as if the Barbie movie came out of nowhere before utterly dominating pop culture since the first trailer dropped at the end of last year… well, nothing could be further from the truth. When Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated translation of one of the most popular toys in human history to cinema hits the multiplex this Friday, it will be the culmination of a journey that started more than a decade ago — and a story that has included Amy Schumer, the mind behind Jennifer’s Body, and one of the many women to play Catwoman on the big screen. Buckle those rollerblades; it’s time to visit the Barbies that never happened.

The Barbie movie: a pre-history

It’s worth pointing out that we’ve actually had Barbie movies for decades by this point; it’s just that they’ve been animated. Ever since 2001’s The Nutcracker, there’s been a steady stream of animated Barbie movies for home viewing — as of writing, we’re on movie #43 in the series, which has gone from adaptations of classic stories to all-new material, all brought to plastic life via CGI animation. The Nutcracker wasn’t actually the first Barbie animated movie, however; that honor goes to 1987’s Barbie and the Rockers: Out of This World, a pilot for a syndicated series that never happened.

Nonetheless, Barbie has been around since 1959. Why did it take this long for her to hit the big screen in live-action, especially considering the many, many lesser toys that had previously achieved this feat?

The Barbie movie false start #1: The most popular girl in the world

Attempts to make a live-action Barbie movie started all the way back in 2009, when Mattel partnered with Universal Pictures for a project to be produced by Laurence Mark, who’d previously heralded Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Jerry Maguire, Glitter, and Dreamgirls to the screen. “Barbie may be the most popular girl in the world, and has always been a wonderfully aspirational figure, so we must do her proud,” Mark said at the time.

When the Mattel/Universal partnership was announced, Barbie brand general manager and Mattel SVP Richard Dickson explained that “the brand wasn’t ready for a movie” before that point, and apparently it still wasn’t; no movie was made, and Universal lost the rights to the brand in 2014.

The Barbie movie false starts #2-4: A legitimately contemporary tone

Sony announced its own deal with Mattel in 2014, and a lot more besides: instead of working on developing a movie, the deal was announced with a project already in motion, with former Sex and the City screenwriter Jenny Bicks attached, as well as producing duo Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who’d worked on everything from the Men in Black movies to The Ring, The Terminal, and Catch Me If You Can.

According to reports at the time, the pitch from Bicks, Parkes, and MacDonald was what had convinced Mattel to partner with Sony, but it clearly wasn’t enough to keep everyone happy. Diablo Cody — the writer behind Juno and Jennifer’s Body — had been brought on board to rewrite the screenplay, with Parkes saying at the time, “Diablo’s unconventionality is just what Barbie needs. It signals we’re going for a legitimately contemporary tone. We’re bringing her on because she had great ideas, but even more importantly, she truly loves Barbie.”

Spoilers: Diablo Cody wasn’t just what Barbie needed after all. Within a year, Sony, Parks and MacDonald had hired three additional writers to try alternate screenplays.

The Barbie movie false start #5: The Barbie that wasn’t

In December 2016, Amy Schumer signed onto the perpetually in-flux project to both star as the title character and rewrite the screenplay one more time alongside sister Kim Caramele.

Schumer would, three months later, depart the project, citing a schedule conflict at the time. Five years later, she admitted that wasn’t the whole story, saying in an interview, “They definitely didn’t want to do it the way I wanted to do it, the only way I was interested in doing it.” Schumer said, teasing that she’d wanted Barbie to be an inventor, but the studio would only agree if she’d invented high heeled shoes made of jell-o.

The Barbie movie false start #6: The other Barbie that wasn’t

Okay, so if Barbie wasn’t going to be Amy Schumer, what about Anne Hathaway? The Dark Knight Returns and Les Meserables actress was reported to be circling the movie after Sony started wooing her with a new creative line-up of director Alethea Jones — who’d later work on both Mrs. Davis and Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies — and new writer Olivia Milch, who’d previously written Ocean’s Eight, which Hathaway had appeared in. Before any deal was closed, however, time ran out — and Sony’s deal with Mattel reached the end of its contractual agreement.

The Barbie movie: Finally

What’s genuinely kind of surprising about what happened next is how everything fell into place so quickly, even if COVID and everything surrounding it would delay the production somewhat. After nine years of false starts at both Universal Pictures and Sony, as soon as Mattel took back the rights to the character, Margot Robbie got interested, which meant that the project ended up at Warner Bros. thanks to Robbie’s deal with the studio; that was in October 2018.

Robbie went from producer to star in July 2019, at which point Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach were named as screenwriters, with Gerwig rumored to direct. That last part would finally be made official two years later, when the project started up anew after coronavirus-related delays and malaise in the movie industry.

Was it good fortune that everything suddenly seemed to snap into place so quickly after the project left Sony? Was it the result of Mattel having a specific idea about what it didn’t want after nearly a decade of misfires? Whatever the reason, Barbie fans the world over can rest assured that, although the process took a surprisingly long time — 14 years! — their beloved doll has finally ended up where she belongs: on the big screen, surrounded by pink and winning the hearts and minds of even more people with each day.

Now, how long will it take to get a Ken spin-off going…?

What age is the best age to see Barbie? Over 12, at the very least, it would seem…

Graeme McMillan

Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.


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