Saturday, August 26, 2017


Welcome to another installment of FAMILY MOVIE NIGHT, where we give our recommendation on a family-friendly movie to enjoy. This week's pick is the animated adventure BARBIE: VIDEO GAME HERO.

It is a well documented fact that I stand apart from my fellow hominids when it comes to the appreciation of motion pictures. Sometimes we agree, but usually when the film-going public go east, this guy goes west. You may draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I prefer to think of myself as "independent."

It was in that spirit of independence, along with a strong sense of confidence in my masculinity, that I dared open my mind and heart to a movie like Barbie: Video Game Hero. Everything about this movie indicated a strong possibility of "so-bad-it's-good"-ness, especially the box copy on the DVD edition I found, which read as follows. I have not embellished it in any way.

Get ready to power up! When BarbieTM magically gets pulled into her favorite video game, she is excited to see she's transformed into a fun roller-skating character. In the game, she meets Cutie, the lovable cloud-shaped friend, and Bella, the roller-skating princess. Together, they soon discover a mischievous emoji is trying to take control of the game. As they travel from level to level, BarbieTM must rely on her amazing gaming skills and out-of-the box thinking to save her team and beat the game!

Oh yeah. If ever a kids movie was guaranteed to be a festering pile of awesomeness, this was the one. Barbie: Video Game Hero is basically Wreck-It Ralph with a dash of Tron (someone gets pulled from the real world into a computer), minus any product licences apart from two (the other one being the game series Just Dance, for some reason), as conceived by someone who likes to pretend they know how programming works. Barbie: Video Game Hero hopes to inspire girls to get interested in programming, which I have zero problem with. Coding is great fun, and a hobby that is both inexpensive and massively rewarding. I wish everyone could learn how. With that said, though, I feel it is my duty to point out to the uninitiated that coding does not look like this:

Pictured: Not Programming.
This gem comes early in the movie as super gamer-girl Barbie "codes a power-up" to help herself and her two friends get through a level of the game Barbie's developing. The only part of that candy-coated monstrosity that is actually relevant to the power-up is that "duration" setting; everything else just has to do with putting that cute winged heart icon on the screen. And about that: kudos to writers Nina Bargiel and Jennifer Skelly for including the technical detail of X and Y coordinates and doing so correctly, but it's obvious they chose those numbers at random. They have nothing to do with where Barbie's finished power-up actually appears.

See, kids? If you learn how to code, you'll be able to spot stuff like this, too. It makes you really popular at parties.

Anyway, the play-testing session reveals a bug, and our heroine takes a break to try and figure out the problem. By reading a book. As opposed to, y'know, actually reviewing her code. It's during this study break that Barbie gets sucked into game-land, after answering what she thinks is an invitation to play-test a new game on her tablet, because Barbie's never learned not to click on random Internet ads, apparently. And this is where that box copy from earlier gets misleading: she's not pulled into "her favorite game", she's pulled into one she's never played before. And it's never established that Bella is in fact a princess; she's just a game character. And the game is actually being taken over by a virus. There are things the movie calls "emojis", but they look more like cheap imitations of the ghosts from Pac-Man:

The virus is making the emojis turn purple and annoying, but doesn't seem to be actually doing any harm apart from getting in the way. "Lovable cloud-shaped friend" Cutie, who speaks in rhyme but has no rhythm, announces that the only way to stop the virus is for Barbie to beat each level of the game. Because ... reasons?

What follows is a colorful adventure full of music and laughs, and shameful amounts of false drama and deus ex machina. No matter what sticky situation our heroes get into, there's always a power-up close by that does exactly what they need at that exact moment. There are also a number of pop culture references that must have been thrown in for the writers' own enjoyment more than anything. These include references to: Indiana Jones; WWE Superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson; 1979 action movie The Warriors; and the one song by girl group TLC that everyone knows. Trust me, you know which one.

When it's not referencing pop culture, the movie is referencing the most recognizable (and thus least copyrighted) styles of video games today, including match-three, racing games, and Minecraft clones. It's a nice touch, though, that each of the game levels Barbie visits on her adventure include their own animation style. The match-three level has a Hello Kitty-esque anime look. The Minecraft level is all right angles and boxy visuals. But what begins as an "adventures in programming" movie for kids quickly turns into just another retread of the "believe in yourself" theme that every childrens' movie comes back to, with an extra splash of 2017 goodness. "We don't have to do like we're programmed," Barbie tells her friends during the requisite "I Learned Something Today" scene. "We can change the game!"

Barbie: Video Game Hero does not "change the game" nor buck its standard kids movie programming, but it is fun in its own way, if only to laugh at or point out where the movie is trying things that other, older movies did better. Also, for the record, this is the first time in many moons I have heard the phrase "power-up" used in the context of video games. I remember the last time, but it wasn't this millennium. Still, if this movie does convince some kid somewhere to learn programming, then good on it. As a former kid who got interested in computers because of a movie myself, I can only say "welcome to the club."

Robert's Score: 5 / 10

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