Arts

This Isn’t Barbie’s First Time Onscreen: She’s Been a Movie Star for Decades

Every Christmas season starting when I was 5, my sister and I had a go-to movie: “Barbie in the Nutcracker.”

We’d pop in the VHS tape and watch Barbie as Clara dance the night away with the Nutcracker on a journey to find the Sugarplum Princess and defeat the Mouse King. We cheered as she landed her prince and consoled each other when she lost him again.

It was just the tip of our fandom for the animated Barbie films that Mattel began releasing at a rate of around one per year beginning with “Nutcracker” in 2001 and eventually totaling about 40 films. Our affection came to encompass VHS tapes of the first five princess movies, as well as my “Barbie of Swan Lake” eighth birthday party with an Odette ice cream cake and pink paper-swan tiaras (which my 70-something grandfather gamely donned)..

Though Greta Gerwig’s new live-action “Barbie,” which just crossed $1 billion at the box office, has been a smash, attracting reams of pink-clad moviegoers to cheer Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie and lust after Ken’s tie-dye “I Am Kenough” hoodie, it’s hardly the first beloved movie to feature the doll, as my sister and I well knew. But until recently, I thought the hold the animated films had on us was unique.

And then I learned that there’s a whole generation obsessed with them, drawn perhaps by nostalgia for a simpler time of sparkly princess gowns, beautiful music and, despite a few obstacles, happy endings for Barbie and her friends.

On college campuses across the country, 20-somethings host watch parties, mainlining hours at a time of the 90-minute animated adventures, the earliest of which feature classical scores played by illustrious outfits like the London Symphony Orchestra and star villains voiced by name actors like Martin Short (the traitorous Preminger in “The Princess and the Pauper”) and Tim Curry (a conniving Mouse King).

There are dozens of TikTok accounts devoted to clips from the movies. On eBay, play sets associated with the earlier films — like the royal music palace from “Princess and the Pauper” — can command upward of $1,000.

“There’s so much positivity in the movies, friendship, and love, that people can’t not love them,” said Hannah, a 26-year-old Barbie cosplayer in Neuberg, Germany. (The New York Times agreed to identify her only by her first name because of privacy concerns.) Since 2016, she has run a popular Instagram account in which she posts photos of herself dressed up as the franchise’s heroines, like Odette, Rapunzel and Clara. (“Nutcracker” is her favorite film.)

The heroine always had to be portrayed as “kind, clever, brave,” said Kelly Sheridan, who voiced the doll in “Barbie of Swan Lake” (2003) and other entries in the franchise.Credit…Artisan Entertainment

One reason she is so drawn to the early animated films, Hannah said, is the gorgeous backdrops and the fabulous fairy-tale wardrobe.

“At first, my idea of making a Barbie ball gown for myself caused a lot of people around me to shake their heads and laugh,” she said. But she wanted to show them “that I could be whatever I wanted.”

Even, she added, a princess.

The success of the animated films, at first glance, is not obvious: The one regarded as the best, “The Princess and the Pauper,” sits at just 75 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics have been lukewarm, with The New York Times calling “Barbie in the Nutcracker,” the first installment, a “pallid but likable” tale for “very small children.” Aspects like the greedy, hooknosed villain of “Swan Lake” have not aged well, provoking criticism for antisemitic tropes.

The problems are painfully obvious to me now. But, on a recent rewatch, I also saw what had initially engrossed me and my sister: Barbie is incorruptible, resistant to the human forces of temptation, pride, selfishness. By the rules of fairy-tale logic — good things happen to good people — her happy ending is a foregone conclusion.

Kelly Sheridan, the Canadian actress who voiced Barbie in 28 of the films between 2001 and 2015, said the initial mantra for the Barbie character was “kind, clever, brave.”

“Barbie was flawless,” Sheridan, 46, said in a recent phone conversation from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. “She could do no wrong.”

For instance, in “Nutcracker,” the script initially had Barbie as Clara stumbling when she carried a tray and catching herself before spilling it contents. But a meeting of the film’s producers and Mattel representatives led to a change because, Sheridan said, “Barbie would never stumble.”

Another time, when she was recording the scene in which Clara confronts the Mouse King, a Mattel representative asked if Barbie could sound less angry. “Because Barbie would never be angry, even confronting the villain,” she said. “She was always kind, clever and brave.”

The reins had loosened, she said, by the 16th film, “Barbie and the Three Musketeers,” in which an athletic, ambitious Barbie engages in sword fights. The studio, she said, realized people actually wanted to relate to her.

“She was able to be more silly and goofy and to have more comedic moments,” she said.

By the career-focused titles of the mid-2010s, Barbie had shed her princess gowns for pants. Now, she was exploring space, going on spy missions and designing video games.

The artist known as Purcy, a 22-year-old illustrator who on Instagram posts her work picturing Barbie as various characters from the animated films, has seen 33 of the films. (She also asked not to use her full name for privacy reasons.) The ones she rewatches the most are set in the modern day, like her favorite, “Barbie: Princess Charm School.”

The Barbie of those films, she said, “showed us that we can be kind, caring, feel love, love pink, while also be strong and standing up for ourselves.”

For Hannah, the best Barbie animated films will always be the original princess tales.

Whenever she attends a cosplay event or posts a photo of her costumes on Instagram, she said, both men and women approach her to share childhood memories they associate with the movies and the dolls.

“Barbie connects us,” she said.

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