This mage released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie in a scene from
This mage released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Ryan Gosling, left, and Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie." Image Credit: (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Crying occupies more space than you might expect in director Greta Gerwig's highly anticipated Barbie, a movie preoccupied with mortality and the general pain of being a human — "specifically a woman" — in an imperfect world.

At the center of Gerwig's exploration: Margot Robbie's 'Barbie' — which releases in UAE cinemas on August 31 — a version of the famous Mattel Inc. doll come to life. Early in the film, she enters the 'Real World' to fix the sudden onset of malaise that has beset her and threatens to undo her utopian society. In doing so, she experiences sorrow for the first time, and begins to cry. Just one tear to start, but it's a strange sensation for her, and a stunning moment of onscreen vulnerability.

I found myself wiping away the result of my own small sobs throughout the film, which wavers between wistful and zany, sometimes accomplishing both at the same time. There are occasionally moments where Gerwig stumbles a little on the metaphorical tightrope she has set out for herself. But messiness is almost baked into the very idea of Barbie, which, at its core, is about how it is difficult to be everything for everybody.

The one group 'Barbie' seems not to be for: truly young kids, the kind that Mattel probably considers its core audience. Maybe tiny viewers will be entranced by the bright colors and fabulous costumes, but this PG-13-rated spectacle has an intellectual degree of difficulty that seems specifically targeted at millennials like Gerwig herself (or yours truly) who have grappled with their own relationship to this doll and its strange place in American consumer consciousness.

Yes, 'Barbie' is a movie produced by a toy company, although the film demonstrates a palpable ambivalence"-and possibly, a little discomfort"-about its utility as an advertisement for Mattel, which at times it presents as a villain. To go too deeply into that cognitive dissonance might prompt an existential crisis like the one Barbie has on screen. Maybe that's Gerwig's end goal"-as well as the debates about the movie's takes on feminism and patriarchy that will surely ensue following its release.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach, quickly lays out the rules of Barbieland.

As narrator Helen Mirren explains, the Barbies live in a world parallel to our own, where all the problems of feminism have been solved because 'Barbie' can be anything: a doctor, an astronaut, a mermaid, a president. The Barbies live an unbothered existence in their Barbie-led society whose every day is perfect and every night is girls' night. The Kens, meanwhile, long for the gaze of a Barbie to make them feel fulfilled. One Ken in particular (Ryan Gosling) is especially desperate for the love of his Barbie (Robbie), who is mostly uninterested in him.

But then Robbie's Barbie"-who refers to herself as 'Stereotypical Barbie'"-starts to have thoughts of death. Her feet, always in tiptoe, go flat. A tiny bit of cellulite shows up on her skin. The other Barbies send her to 'Weird Barbie' (Kate McKinnon), an oracle of sorts whose face has been smeared with marker and whose hair has been cut. Weird Barbie explains that the child playing with Robbie's Barbie has imposed these feelings on her, causing a rift between Barbieland and the Real World. To fix this, Barbie must venture into our universe. Like an overeager puppy dog, Ken tags along.

When Barbie and Ken arrive in this unknown territory, they immediately have opposing experiences. Rollerblading in Santa Monica, Barbie experiences leering eyes for the first time, while Ken suddenly understands what it's like to live in a patriarchy"-a pleasure he eventually brings back to Barbieland. (After their trip to the Real World, they eventually return"-with mixed results.) In the interim, Barbie, on a quest to solve what's plaguing her, ends up in the company of a sullen tween (Ariana Greenblatt) and her Barbie-loving mother (America Ferrera). They have to evade capture by Mr. Mattel (Will Ferrell) and his all-male executive suite, the demographics of which confuse Barbie.

Gerwig and Baumbach's script asks you to overlook the mechanics of how these life-sized dolls can bounce around Los Angeles with no knowledge of how anything actually works, while deeply investing in Barbie's plight as she grapples with her newfound consciousness. Almost incredibly, it works.

In the end, Barbie's adventure forces her to reckon with the cruelty and inequity of contemporary society, all while battling its influence at home as Ken brings his newfound understanding to the rest of the Kens. In doing so, she has to figure out who she is, what she represents and critically, what she actually wants out of life from others and herself.

There are moments that feel stretched. In the second half, an extended Ken musical number, with shades of Busby Berkeley, Agnes de Mille and NSYNC, is deliriously silly and visually spectacular; it drags on too long, despite the highlight of Gosling digging into his Mickey Mouse Club roots. Gosling is indeed very funny playing Ken as an insecure himbo"-he already has been getting, and will continue to get, the most memes"-but Barbie thrives on Robbie's nuanced performance.

It would be easy to lean into the camp aspects of the role, but Robbie takes on Barbie with a wide-eyed earnestness. Her scenes opposite other women who are not Barbies"-specifically Ferrera and Rhea Perlman (the latter playing a character I won't spoil)"-have the kind of gentle, emotional tug that Gerwig brought to her debut film Lady Bird and her adaptation of Little Women.

The fun that Gerwig has with her material is unmistakable, from the extended musical sequences to the golden age of Hollywood-style backdrops and on to the Barbie ephemera she repeatedly highlights. (Did you know Barbie had a dog that poops? That there was once a Skipper"-her little sister"-that grew breasts?)

Still, the core of Barbie is in those tears Robbie sheds. She's playing a doll, but her tears feel real. You might just shed some, too.

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'Barbie' releases in UAE cinemas on August 31.