Hardcore collectors of a specific item are an interesting breed. They will go to any length to acquire the item of their desire, often revolve their life around the product and even attempt to emulate it in some extreme circumstances. Sometimes it's just a hobby but there are some folks out there that really take it to the next level to a point where it is kind of creepy. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the phenomenon that is Barbie Nation.
When Ruth Handler came up with the idea of an adult doll for children, I doubt that she had any idea what impact it would have had on the world today. Even though her husband was a co-founder of Mattel, it's rather amusing to learn that the idea was originally shot down by the bigwigs. It was on a trip to Germany when she discovered the Lilli doll which was an adult doll that was something of an icon at the time. With the toy in hand Mattel had its first Barbie so they quickly acquired ownership of Lilli and changed a few things about her.
Over the years the doll has made a big impact in many lives. Children grew up aspiring to be Barbie while others just carried a love for her throughout their adulthood. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour takes a look at many of these people and is a deeply personal documentary about child's toy. It was a project that was obviously born out of love and fascination, so one would naturally expect that the views be fairly one-sided from start to finish.
The project follows several paths and introduces you to many different (and boy, do I mean "different") people. One of the main portions of the talks about and interviews fans whose lives revolve around Barbie. There's a guy that stitches different types of hair into his dolls, another that reenacts moments from his life through his toys and even some fans that go as far as to make pornographic Barbie situations. If by chance you had actually seen this documentary on PBS you may be pleased to know that this section has been restored on the DVD and is uncensored. That means you'll be able to see a Barbie doll with nipple rings and a strap-on as well as a Ken with an oversized penis and S&M gear. Yeah, like I said…. "Different".
Other points of the film are historical in nature with some nice interviews with the Ruth and Elliot Handler in their home. The two recount their humble beginnings and how they created the Mattel Empire and drove the success of Barbie. I always find these rags to riches stories fascinating and I suppose you could say it's all a part of the American Dream. I still find it hard to believe that the Handlers ever imagined that people would pervert their toy with various sex scenes and variations such as "Trailer Trash Barbie" and "Little Dyke Barbie".
The documentary also visits several conventions and festivals set up for fans of the toys. If you've ever seen some of the people that attend fandom conventions then you pretty much know what to expect. People walk around in costumes, guys dress up like Barbie, various hats are adorned and even some impromptu karaoke that proves to be painful on the ears. Then again, I suppose you don't have to go to a convention to see those types of people since many of them seem to be randomly walking the streets of California and stop by when Barbie and a camera show up. The director admits that many of the street meetings were arranged ahead of time, but some of them do appear to be chance encounters.
In the end this is a documentary for big time Barbie fans and will be adored by its target audience. I wasn't one of those guys that played with the doll when I was younger; instead I was more fixated with Transformers and Ninja Turtles. Even so, I found Barbie Nation to be fascinating from the standpoint of a historical feature about a childhood icon. It's interesting to me to get a glimpse at how such a phenomenon was crafted and borderline comical to watch some of the things diehard fans do. Embarrassingly I do have to admit that I got a chuckle at some of the custom Barbie stuff like the S&M scene and Trailer Trash edition.
A compilation of different film grades, old commercials and home videos, the image quality for Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour varies greatly. The DVD is presented with a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and carries a definite low-budget appearance. There is a lot of speckle, grain and softness to the picture. Even in its best moments the visuals leave a lot to be desired though to be fair the material on hand isn't the best quality. Rabid Barbie fans won't really care about the picture grade as long as they can just get their hands on it.
English 2.0 is the only way that you're going to be experiencing this show. There are no options what-so-ever for alternate languages or subtitles. The quality is about what you'd expect from a stereo presentation with little directionality, all front channel play and a rather lackluster sound. Depending on what material is being covered there were some hisses in the background as well as a fluctuating volume. Again, it's not the worst aesthetic presentation out there, but it's definitely nowhere near the best.
In addition to the documentary itself there are a handful of additional clips to browse through. The five extra "shorts" that are included are: "Weird Barbies", "Black Barbie", "Barbie on the Street", "Collector's Barbies" and "Handlers at Home". I personally liked the "Weird Barbies" and "Collector's Barbies" the best out of these mostly thanks to the different looking dolls that both Mattel produced and what fans destroyed. Each of these shorts varies in length but they fit right in with the rest of the material in the feature so they don't feel out of place.
The Filmmakers is a short look at the minds behind the documentary though it really just shows them sitting on the floor playing with their Barbie dolls. The only other bonus content on the disc is a Director's Commentary with Susan Stern that is easily one of the driest commentaries I have ever heard. Stern goes on and on in droll fashion with some information about the project but for the most part she narrates her film.
Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour is obviously geared towards Barbie fans. If you have a collection of the dolls in a cabinet or find yourself going to conventions and anniversary bashes, then this documentary is made strictly for you. Everybody else can pretty much pass on it unless you have an interest in the phenomenon or like watching a proverbial train wreck. The DVD scores fairly low grades and while the material itself was somewhat interesting to me I found most of it to be pretty exclusive.
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