Barbie goes to Hollywood

World's best-known doll is coming to the big screen. But who can fill her shoes?

Call it blonde ambition. After fifty years, countless changes of costume, and more than 120 official jobs, Barbie has decided to take her golden hair, blue eyes and hourglass figure to its natural home: Hollywood.

The world's most famous plastic doll, whose full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, has been signed by Universal Pictures in a multi-million dollar deal that will see her portrayed by a real-life actress in a series of "family-friendly" live-action movies.

And Ken will be worried to hear that she is not making the transition alone. News of the move came as Mattel, the toy manufacturer responsible for Barbie, announced that it had also agreed to sell-off similar rights to its most famous boy's toy, He-Man. The muscle-bound superhero and his fellow "Masters of the Universe" have joined the stable of rival studio Sony.

The critics will doubtless groan: this summer has seen live-action concept films inspired by toys like Transformers and G.I. Joe released to a near-universal drubbing. But given they nonetheless make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, Barbie and He-Man's journeys to the big screen make solid business sense.

Yet they also represent a departure for Mattel, who have traditionally been highly protective of their products' polished image. Over the years, the firm has turned down countless approaches by studios interested in developing Barbie films, limiting her to a motley selection of straight-to-video cartoons.

"The brand wasn't ready for a movie," Mattel told Variety yesterday. "[But] in the last 10 years, Barbie has evolved from a toy into an intellectual property. We've already had enormous success in the entertainment industry... there have been live stage shows, live symphonies and other non-traditional forms of entertainment."

Developing the first film will take several years, and Universal has appointed the prominent producer Laurence Mark – whose CV includes Jerry Maguire and the recent Julia & Julia - to oversee the project. He is currently appointing screenwriters.

"Barbie may be the most popular girl in the world, and has always been a wonderfully aspirational figure, so we must do her proud," Mark said, adding that he has plenty to work with, given Barbie has had over 120 personas, including high-school teenager, astronaut, and cocktail waitress.

At least part of the narrative is likely to revolve around Ken, Barbie's on-off boyfriend (at one point displaced by an Australian surfing hunk called Blaine); other portions will no doubt include her impeccably diverse cast of close friends. Although speculation has inevitably begun about which actress will play the iconic doll, Mark has no immediate plans to start auditioning candidates.

The film will add another chapter to the storied history of Barbie, who was first unveiled at the 1959 toy fair in New York by her creator Ruth Handler, and whose design has barely changed since. She has remained the world's most popular, and lucrative, girls toy for more than five decades.

Barbie's design was based on a German sex doll called Bild Lilli. She was considered revolutionary as the first mass-market girl's doll modelled on an adult, and also because of her innovative leg joint, which allowed her to sit down without spreading her legs distastefully. But she has also come in for plenty of criticism for the idealised image she presents to young girls. A Finnish hospital calculated that if she were 5ft 9ins, her waist would be a mere 18 inches – and she would lack the minimum 17 to 22 percent body fat required to menstruate.

For years, Mattel refused attempts by Hollywood to drag Barbie into the modern era. But increased competition from video games and rival dolls like Bratz has in recent years forced the firm to alter its marketing strategy.

In addition to having appeared on stage, and in a cameo in the Toy Story movies, Barbie now boasts dedicated theme "homes" in Malibu and Shanghai, together with a blog, a Twitter feed, and her own Facebook page.

He-Man's journey to the big screen has also been tortured. Film rights to the cartoon action hero were originally sold to Warner Brothers in 2007. However their project floundered amid reported creative tension between producer Joel Silver, his bosses at the studio, and Mattel, which retained the power of veto over the film's contents. After buying the lapsed rights, Sony is now starting from scratch. According to Variety, their film will "revolve around a prince who becomes the warrior He-Man and battles the evil Skeletor for control of his magical homeland."

Battle of the blondes

*Only in Hollywood does being compared to Barbie represent a compliment. This leaves endless candidates to play the world's most famous blonde. Ultimately, the choice comes down to flagrant ageism: Anna Faris, Heather Graham, and Katherine Heigl are the best actresses on any shortlist, but they're all in their thirties. Another older candidate, Reese Witherspoon, showed form for the part as a real-life version in the comedy franchise Legally Blonde, but the movie's satirical edge will probably blow that prospect out of the water. Hayden Panetierre and Blake Lively, 20-something TV stars looking for breakthrough film roles, have better age profiles. But the current bookies' favourite is precocious 15-year-old child actress Dakota Fanning. Pamela Anderson, meanwhile, surely represents a shoo-in to play Barbie's mother.

The actor who plays He-Man, meanwhile, will be required to look buff in buff in leather underpants, and occasionally raise a large sword above his head while shouting "I have the power." Christian Bale, who takes that sort of role very seriously, must be considered a front-runner, along with Daniel Craig, who brings blonde hair and a beefy frame to the table. The purist's choice, however, would be California's outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - who is still fondly remembered as Conan the Barbarian, and will be looking for gainful employment very soon indeed.

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