Step right up to P.T. Barnum’s spectacular world of curiosities. The Greatest Showman is a film filled with magical moments that are fun for the whole family.
Much like Hugh Jackman’s character, Barnum, The Greatest Showman hooks audiences with a web of lies and exaggerations, and yet, audiences leave the film feeling good. Though the film does not focus on the facts of Barnum’s life, the pop anthem songs are catchy enough and the clishéd themes are hidden in enough glam and glitz to make you forgive the tall tale.
In the American musical tradition, the film opens with a show stopping number led by Jackman, which, to be honest, was a little disappointing to me. There is something that is off about Jackman’s performance that continued through the entirety of the film. Jackman, who won a Tony Award in 2004 for best leading man in a musical and who won our hearts as Val Jean in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, didn’t carry the same energy that he brought to previous musical roles. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see Zac Efron play a mature adult as Barnum’s business partner, Bailey, and Efron’s counterpart, Zendaya is simply charming in her role as Anne Wheeler the trapeze artist. Together, the pair almost steal the show from beneath Jackman’s feet.
When the opening number ends, we come to find out that the glamorous dance number is simply the daydream of a young Barnum who is a poor tailor’s son. At this moment, we begin to understand the structure of the story we are about to witness. The next hour and thirty minutes are spent telling a similar rags to riches, dreamer finding his dream, and triumphant love story that you’ve already seen a hundred times. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the ride. The song “A Million Dreams” transitions Barnum from child to man all the while telling the story of how he and his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams) grow up to choose a life of poverty over a life without each other. It’s a story we’ve heard before, but we still appreciate risk the couple take choosing love over security.
“The next hour and thirty minutes are spent telling a similar rags to riches, dreamer finding his dream, and triumphant love story that you’ve already seen a hundred times. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the ride.”
While the story is lacking in creativity and decent character development, the film makes up for this in a true musical fashion. Much the same as 2016’s La La Land, The Greatest Showman pays tribute to the legacy of American musicals with outrageous dance numbers, dazzling costumes, and its commitment to overdone but not outdated themes of love at first sight and the pauper’s tale. The modern pop melodies, written by La La Land’s Benj Pasek, accompanying a 19th century story line are welcoming rather than out of place.
One of my favorite things about the film is the way the choreography brings the music to life. This is most prominent in “The Other Side” the musical sequence when Barnum convinces, Bailey to join him in the circus business. The scene, which is set in a bar, uses bar stools and whiskey shots to bring the percussion out of the soundtrack and into the New York world of Barnum and Bailey. Choreographer Ashley Warren created an over-the-top dance style that is perfect for this over-the-top movie. With a mixture of classic musical theater, modern pop dancing, and a perfect ensemble of misfit characters, it is the musical numbers that really make this film stand out.
Because the musical numbers that dotted the plot points of the film are what really held the film together, I do wish that writers Bill Condon and Jenny Bricks spent less time using overdone themes for Barnum’s story and more time developing the misfit characters Barnum collects for his circus. There were stories hidden behind all the outcast circus performers that were screaming to be let out. However, the closest we got was the power anthem “This Is Me” sung by bearded woman Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle). Had the film dug deeper beyond the one song and radiated a spotlight on the true stars of the circus, the story may have had more to offer.
The biggest truth The Greatest Showman brings to the big screen is that the show must go on. While the film serves a watered down and sugar coated version of P.T. Barnum’s life, it is a fun ride filled with the glitz and glam and lies that we all know show business really is. So, if you aren’t looking to learn the truth, you don’t want a film that will make you think, and you are looking for a good time, The Greatest Showman is the film to see this holiday season.
Cinema 35 Rating: 7/10