Barbie's Crusade to Cute-ify the Classics

Mattel will bend any old story to bore into girls' minds, even if it means sticking a unicorn in Swan Lake. OK, but why stop there?

By Shannon Rupp 28 Nov 2003 |
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The Barbie World is an irony-free zone. Should you have any doubt, go directly to, a Web site for doll collectors. There you'll even find Barbie as Marie Antoinette, although there's no mention of whether the doll comes with her own guillotine, or a removable head.

Maybe there's a little toy cake?

So I guess it shouldn't surprise even me, a dance critic, to see how those smarty-boots at Mattel have re-branded the fairy tale ballet of Swan Lake. Barbie of Swan Lake features an animated video and toy collection based on one of classical ballet's darkest stories. The tale is full of psychological subtext about the nature of female sexuality and how unleashing it leads to tragedy.

In the original, evil magician Rothbart turns Odette into a white swan with a spell that can be broken if she finds true love. When a prince -- who is, incidentally, out swan-hunting in the forest (let's not go there, people) -- falls in love with her, Rothbart disguises his daughter Odile to look like Odette. The prince declares undying love to the impostor, and, in most versions of the ballet, the lovers meet a watery death.

No matter how you look at it, this 19th century tale seems an unlikely choice for the under-seven set.

Which may explain why Barbie's Swan Lake resembles the original as much as a McDonald's meal resembles food. Writers were hired to provide a product-placement script. They dropped the defining image for Swan Lake -- that impossibly long line of women in white tutus -- and replaced it with little children, who change into animals, played by the Tommy and Kelly dolls.

But the film's real star is Lila the lilac unicorn.

Let me just say that having spent 12 years as a dance critic, I saw endless variations of Swan Lake, some of which had happy endings. Not one included a unicorn.

Jennifer Twiner-McCarron, a producer with Mainframe Entertainment, the Vancouver animation house that co-produces the Barbie videos with Mattel, just laughed when I asked where the mythical pony came from.

"Mattel gives us a toy line and says create a movie around it, based on the market research," Twiner-McCarron explained. "It's well known that ballet does well with little girls, and Swan Lake is one that the moms might know. And the image of the swan is nice. There's an enchanted forest, and we could add animals and a unicorn -- which little girls really love. "

The result is a video that is little more than an extended commercial for Mattel toys. Although Twiner-McCarron does make some smart arguments about how Mattel is using commerce as a vehicle for art. Its predecessors, Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie as Rapunzel (which encouraged painting) sold 10 million copies between them.

The Swan Lake video includes about 10 minutes of dance done by members of the New York City Ballet, using "motion capture" technology. They film the dancers and then superimpose the animated characters over their movements, giving the dance a natural, fluid look.

Trigger that "buy impulse"

Still, given the inspiration for these projects it appears that the video is really just a map to the five-year-old consumer's "buy impulse."

But if that's the case, the toy-maker seems to be squandering opportunities.

For example, if the Swan Lake video had included those mesmerizing rows of pretty Barbies in white tutus they could have sold thousands of dolls for the home version of the corps de ballets. Package them in twos, and little girls could be encouraged to buy a minimum of eight, and preferably 24. This would also have the advantage of explaining to their parents just why classical ballet is such an expensive art form, and needs to be supported by taxpayers.

But, since they don't seem to get irony, I'm not sure Mattel understands the full commercial potential of the classics, either.

Think of all the merchandising possibilities for a thespian series: the costuming alone could generate a fortune in sales. And then you could have a toy theatre, with interchangeable sets, giving children a chance to play director or stage manager. Throw in a copy of the relevant play, and voila, educational fun!

Romeo and Juliet is a natural. Well, minus those pesky deaths. But, personally, I'm dying to see Barbie as murderous mom Medea. There would even be a dual role for the little boy doll, Tommy, as her sons. And how about Barbie as Lady MacBeth (with a removable blood stain for her hand: now you see it; now you don't).

Can't you envision a whole Barbie-does-the-classics series? Animate Barbie as Helen of Troy, and not only could you sell the walled city  as a play set, you  could sell a Trojan horse full of Ken dolls wearing those little Greek skirt-things.

A literature series could include Barbie in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and a play set of Mr. Darcy's mansion, Pemberley. This would give little girls insight into just what kind of a bargain Elizabeth struck when she agreed to marry the world's most judgmental man.

Career opportunities

Just as I was beginning to enjoy riffing on the "Barbie as" formula -- let's face it, the idea has legs, albeit long, plastic ones -- Twiner-McCarron interceded with: "You have some good ideas, you should come to our development meetings."

Is she joking? She must be joking. 

But the more I think about it, the more I hope she's not joking. I'm just warming up. What journalist doesn't want to be a screenwriter? Hey, there's nothing wrong with teaching kids the classics via watered-down versions of the stories featuring dolls and their accessories. Sure, delivering them with upbeat endings will lead to a fractured, post-modern kind of an education, but isn't that better than no education at all?

Besides, since 9/11 all the pundits have been saying that irony is dead. It seems to have been replaced by earnestness and a peculiar urge to give up one's civil rights. In other words, who am I to buck a trend?

So I'm going to take that meeting, as we in the film biz say. In anticipation, I'm revising Medea to leave out the unsavoury bits about her offing her children. Oh, yeah, and I have to figure out how to work in a unicorn.

Say, do you think Mattel would go for a Trojan Unicorn?

Vancouver-based Shannon Rupp writes regularly for the Ottawa Citizen and now for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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