“The Greatest Showman” couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, as the famed circus detailed in the film being formed, which later became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, shut its doors in May of this past year after nearly 100 years in business. This makes a good deal of the film come across as more bittersweet than it initially intended itself to be, and while the circus was home to a heap of controversy regarding worker’s rights and animal cruelty accusations, to know the “empire” built in the film so lovingly has all but collapsed by the time you’re viewing it is a bit sad. Still, “The Greatest Showman” is about entertainment above all else, and how else to do that but in musical form? One might think it’s riding off the coattails of “La La Land” last year, creating an original musical made solely for film, and you would almost be too on-the-nose, as “La La Land” lyricists Benji Pasek and Justin Paul actually wrote the music for “The Greatest Showman.” Still, as musicals make a comeback, a little part of my high school theater self wriggles in sheer joy.
Phineas Taylor aka P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a low-level numbers cruncher living in New York with his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) and his daughters. When his workplace closes unexpectedly, he’s forced to find new work. Inspired by the wonders of the world, he forges a loan and buys a building in Manhattan to house a museum full of wonders and oddities. When his museum fails to bring in guests, he begins to recruit unique individuals to help him put on a show the likes New Yorkers have never seen before. He strikes up a business deal with hotshot playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who develops a relationship with trapeze artist, Anne (Zendaya). Meanwhile, Barnum looks to expand his showmanship past just a circus, enlisting the help of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to legitimize his work as a showman. As his notoriety grows bigger, so do Barnum’s problems and the backlash against his shows.
First, the good news: the musical sequences in “The Greatest Showman” are wonderful. The songs in the film are rousing, catchy and moving, and the sequences that surround them, while not “La La Land” level good, are fun and engaging for the audience. From the highest highs in “Come Alive” to the moving emotion in “Never Enough,” the cast is game and commit to crafting a wonderful musical in “The Greatest Showman.” The choreography and production design play wonderfully into the musical sequences and really do create a fun atmosphere that makes me miss big musicals like this as the norm.
Now, the bad news: the actual film portion of “The Greatest Showman” simply doesn’t keep up with the wonder that comes in the musical sequences. The first problem with “The Greatest Showman” is that it greatly sanitizes the story of Barnum and his circus for the sake of cinematic wonder, which is often fine, but I constantly found myself wondering just how a man of Barnum’s power amassed such power by being such a “good man.” Jackman is a great actor, and he is good here, but there’s almost a weird savior complex that comes about from Barnum’s presence with the acts in the show, as if he’s the sole reason anyone in the troupe has any quality of life or happiness. Of course, the film can’t put everything in Barnum’s life into the film, but when the removed parts of the life at hand include that the first act showcased by Barnum was a slave woman who was advertised as being over 160 years old, when she wasn’t even 80, maybe it’s time to rethink.
But you know what? Let’s ignore all of that. Musicals like this aren’t supposed to be super accurate, and however much was taken out and whatever falsehoods were placed into this story are moot. The bigger issues with “The Greatest Showman” come in that it feels are too rote and cliché to have any fun with outside of the rousing musical sequences. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s just not particularly original or moving when the characters aren’t singing. Jackman, Efron, Williams, Ferguson (!), Zendaya, etc. are all good as always, but the issue is that we really don’t care that much, and that’s an issue.
The direction by first-time director Michael Gracey is also fine, if uninspired. Much of the film seems to rest on the aesthetic of the time period and the visual eye achieved from Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, but without any clear point made to it all, it feels much more like a film that shoots to be somewhere in-between “Chicago,” “Moulin Rouge” and “La La Land,” without ever really nailing the feeling of either of the three, and while that does give the film a more unique feel than it should, it’s not particularly earned, as it still doesn’t have a particular motif that it’s going for. It’s not that “The Greatest Showman” is directionless, the direction at hand just has no gravitas to it, when it could’ve hit hard.
On a perfect note, Keala Settle, playing Lettie Lutz, the bearded woman, is an absolute star. With the voice one could only dream of and the physical presence in her performance to match, she’s the only thing in “The Greatest Showman” I can only levy positive feedback to.
But I really can’t miscommunicate how great the musical sequences in the film are. It’s almost as if the film at hand are two different films in one. One is a rousing musical that would hit hard at the Golden Globes (this one already has three nominations on its own), but the other is a sanitized, shoddily written, dully directed period piece that holds nothing for the audience to really grasp onto beyond the hope that it’ll eventually turn itself around. Being a family-friendly film doesn’t mean that it has to make itself so obvious and unsubtle that it becomes hard to take seriously. The performances are fine, the aesthetic is well-crafted and the music is wonderful. “The Greatest Showman” is everything a film like this should and shouldn’t be, all at the same time. It has wondrous and rote elements working to cross each other out, and in the end, it’s messy fun that still needs a hell of a lot more work to work without caring.
It’s a 2/5 for the film, a 4/5 for the musical sequences, and a half-point deduction in the average between the two for not making it mesh together like it should’ve.
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle.
Runtime: 105 minutes
Rating: PG for thematic elements including a brawl.
Twentieth Century Fox presents, a Laurence Mark/Chernin Entertainment production, “The Greatest Showman”