Warning: The following article discusses the plot of Barbie.
Buddy The Elf has grown up. Raised in the frat pack 2000s, Will Ferrell became the wide-eyed, full-throated id of masculine immaturity. From Buddy and Burgundy to a slew of cameos on Eastbound & Down and The Office, Ferrell became a cipher for male entitlement, able to ascend the ranks of any closed system despite a distinct lack of boundaries or composure. When he played Lord Business in 2014’s The Lego Movie, Ferrell gave us two sides of that coin: a petulant tyrant and an adult man ground down by a world he could not control. In Barbie, Ferrell goes for seconds, and, once again, playtime is over.
We’re not the first to notice the parallels between Barbie and The Lego Movie. Barbie director Greta Gerwig and Lego filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller thread near-impossible needles in adapting narrative-less toys and their meaning to the culture that played with them. But it’s hard to overlook that in both cases, Will Ferrell plays the heavy as a villainous stuffed shirt who wants to follow directions and—as in director Greta Gerwig’s film—put Barbie back in the box.
Ferrell ascended to the throne as king of the man-children in the early 2000s. Under the persona of a boisterous oaf, he led a string of hits, adjusting his ignorance level for the role. Through Elf’s Buddy and Step Brothers’ Brennan, Ferrell essentially played the same role in two different ways. In Elf, his innocent holiday spirit fuels Christmas cheer; in Step Brothers, that same sincerity is a parent’s worst nightmare.
The Lego Movie complicates this bedrock of Ferrell’s comedy by turning him into the face of adulthood. His dual role as Lord Business and the father who glues his Legos together so his son can’t play with them provides the film its central threat and emotional spine. For much of the movie, we only hear Ferrell through his animated Lego form, but when he’s revealed as “The Voice Upstairs,” the film weaponizes our experience with the actor. The audience’s recognition of Ferrell as this beloved large adult son does half the work for him, allowing Lego’s ending to hit harder because of our history with Ferrell. This is Ferrell’s Chazz Reinhold, 2004’s king of the wedding crashers, a man who would supposedly never grow old. A decade later, he’s gluing toys together.
Nearly a decade after Lego, Ferrell gets a promotion in Barbie. Lego and Barbie already have much in common, blending the worlds of play and reality. Like in Lego, when those lines are crossed, it’s Ferrell’s job to clean up the mess. Lord Business does so by super gluing Legos together, denying the player the fun of creation; the Mattel CEO wants to put Barbie back in her box before she does something weird, like visit a gynecologist. Ferrell doesn’t get the emotional reconciliation in Barbie, but he also isn’t treated like a threat. He’s treated like an impediment on par with Ron Burgundy, another touchy loudmouth who failed upwards unbeknownst to him.
While Gerwig doesn’t treat Ferrell’s character with overt hostility, it’s another clear example of him playing the immature adult in the room, and his worldview is pervasive. After a second act that’s very reminiscent of Elf, Barbie (Margot Robbie) returns to Barbie Land to find that Ken (Ryan Gosling) has turned her home into a Will Ferrell joke. His “Mojo Dojo Casa House’’ resembles a Burgundy-esque string of improvisational non-sequiturs. It’s oddly fitting that Ferrell would head a company that produces a line of dolls that act like Will Ferrell characters.
A strong comic persona ages with its performer. Bill Murray is a perfect example of this. As he aged, Murray’s sarcastic slacker grew into a lonely curmudgeon, left behind by the world that he rejected. Will Ferrell is going through a similar transition. We see his path from an overgrown man-child in Elf to a hapless suburban stepdad in Daddy’s Home. Like any great movie star performance, Will Ferrell’s casting comes with baggage that works in the movie’s favor. Just as there’s some Lord Business in the Mattel CEO, there’s some Buddy The Elf in the trailer for his upcoming fish-out-of-water talking-dog movie Strays. He brings that with him whenever he plays the heavy, allowing the audience an easy in without much explanation. He’s just doing his Will Ferrell thing.