We simply must know what’s going on with Daniel Kaluuya’s Barney movie

In a post-Barbie cinema landscape, Mattel is set to take over: but what does it have to do with a big, annoying purple dinosaur and the star of Get Out? Reformed Barney hater Eliza Janssen is mystified by this mysterious, upcoming project.

Yeah, okay, I’ll say it: I was one of those people who found nothing funnier in the 2000s than imagining the violent demise of Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Granted, I was a tiny child. I’d only just begun to understand the comic contrast between cuddly, benevolent characters facing mortal agony, through the timeless slapstick of shows like Happy Tree Friends and ~*epic fail*~ footage of theme park mascots getting socked in the nuts.

I was a pre-teen edgelord, and I was certainly not alone in my sophomoric sadism: there’s a whole Wikipedia entry for ‘Anti-Barney Humour’, and the barbaric Barney Fun Page is now one of the oldest operating websites in the world. Here’s a screen cap to quickly convey what it offers fellow Barney haters:

There is a fictional jihad out for Barney’s blood. His name has been interpreted as subliminal messaging, brainwashing American schoolchildren into worshipping the number of the beast. One South African man suffering from locked-in syndrome credits his ultimate recovery with his furious hatred of Barney’s PBS children’s show, played on TV before him as he sat paralysed, fuming. A Peacock documentary chronicling all of this misplaced, vitriolic hate is ingeniously titled ‘I Love You, You Hate Me’.

Yep: there’s not much goodwill out there for the jurassic kindergarten beastie these days. But I have faith that his fate might change, since a dark and gritty film about the big purple freak has been in development since 2019. It’s being produced by Daniel Kaluuya, the star of scintillating Jordan Peele horror films Get Out and Nope, and has been described by Mattel’s vice president as “a play for adults”.

The exec singled out the project in a New Yorker article that details Mattel’s plans for post-Barbie cultural domination, comparing it to the work of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. “It’ll focus on some of the trials and tribulations of being thirtysomething, growing up with Barney—just the level of disenchantment within the generation. It would be so daring of us, and really underscore that we’re here to make art.”

Hmm. Okay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the toymaker’s grab at transcendent arthouse excellence in the form of Barbie. Beloved auteur Greta Gerwig wasn’t able to convey her usual themes of female selfhood through the blockbuster’s pink, marketable lens, with her claimed influences of Jacques Demy and Kubrick not translating into a cohesive-enough product for my liking.

As the New Yorker article threatens, we’re now facing a tidal wave of films based on our childhood playthings. Mattel alone has announcing 13 new features based on playthings such as Polly Pocket and He-Man, with 45 other properties already in development. Mattel films CEO Robbie Brenner gushed that “in the world we’re living in, I.P. is king”, as if we haven’t already lived through a few decades of march-driven, cinematic-franchise-worshipping cinematic emptiness: “pre-awareness is so important.”

Could Kaluuya’s Barney movie be the sinister tonic we need in these plastic, fantastic times? Or will it just necessarily admit that many of us cynics loathe rather than love the IP at its centre, in order to convert us into customers? The British actor feels like an inspired, wild-card choice to take the project’s reins, at the very least. He got his start in improvisational theatre and wrote a dystopian Netflix feature that’s set to arrive on the platform this year. While his casting in the project hasn’t been confirmed or denied yet, there’s every chance the Oscar nominee could show up as an embittered grown-up, left to face the cruel adult world alone after a childhood bolstered by Barney’s brand of blithe optimism. Maybe he could step into The Sunken Place again and don Barney’s fuzzy flesh himself. Yeesh.

Altogether, the upcoming Dark Barney Universe sounds like one of those harebrained schemes that gets buzzed about on the internet for a minute before being trapped in development hell forever. And yet, as of July 2023, we’ve had continuous confirmation that the project is indeed going ahead, with a few final drafts of the script allegedly getting tweaked and a production schedule in the works.

I’ve grown out of my emo, dino-bashing tween phase, and am perfectly positioned to wish Kaluuya and, with teeth-gritting reluctance, Mattel the best. Here’s hoping it’s a genuinely bleak, messed-up exception in the toy juggernaut’s rolling world domination: like the IP-slandering Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, but good. All I ask is that ancient YouTube artefact ‘Barney’s On Fire’ plays over the end credits.