Review: The Greatest Showman
It’s easy to see how the splendor and spectacle of the days of the Barnum circus would make for a captivating big screen musical. The attractions that lie within the proverbial red-and-white striped tent, channeled into a genre which emphasizes a sense of escapism sounds like a slam dunk on paper. The Greatest Showman attempts to bring this idea to life, while self-reflexively paying homage to the golden days of the Hollywood musical (and injecting itself with a postmodern, Baz Luhrmann-esque sensibility).
When he’s not brandishing adamantium claws, Hugh Jackman is best known for his more theatrical talents, best exemplified in various live productions and in Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables as Jean Valjean. Here, in the lead role of P.T. Barnum, we get a decidedly more family-friendly role from the actor, as much of the plot concerns him providing a better life for his family and creating what would eventually be known as the famous, travelling Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. As this has been Jackman’s passion project for nearly a decade, he brings a bottomless well of charisma to the screen, fitting into the role like a glove.
The rest can’t be said for his co-stars, however, despite them trying their hardest. Jackman is joined by Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity, a role with not much substance that feels massively underwritten, meant to accentuate a feeling of romance to pad the film out. Zac Efron as Philip Carlyle, a playwright who joins forces with Barnum to give his circus a more professional demeanor, can at least sing, and the role is a refreshing callback to Efron’s High School Musical days. Rebecca Ferguson (who doesn’t do her own singing) portrays opera singer Jenny Lind and performs a real number that brings the house down with “Never Enough”. Star-on-the-rise Zendaya, seen earlier this year in Spider-Man: Homecoming portrays a trapeze artist named Anne who Philip falls for; their acrobatic number “Rewrite the Stars” is perhaps the film’s standout musical moment, where, the music, choreography and cinematic space blend together effortlessly.
The songs themselves (written by La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are mainly about the film’s central idea of chasing your dreams. One is literally titled “A Million Dreams” and consumes a good portion of the film’s first act. It’s a little hard to ignore that their accompanying dance numbers feel as if they went under massive reshoots, as they possess an amount of flair that is bewildering compared to the drab essence of non-musical sequences. The musical sequences are unquestionably the film’s highlight, but it’s jarring when they surround moments with next-to-no color or originality to them.
What’s perhaps the most off-putting about The Greatest Showman is the revisionist framing point of the entire story, in which P.T. Barnum is seen as a champion for the marginalized. It’s problematic at best from a historical perspective. Characterizing him as a young family man who rose out of poverty and endured numerous setbacks before achieving his goals and eventually leaving it all behind is a complete fabrication, to the point where you wonder why the makers of this didn’t just go ahead and make a purely fictional account of a Barnum-esque figure. The fact the film literally ends with a quote from Barnum, shows an effort to make the audience take the story presented as somewhat factual - an ill-advised decision at best. Perhaps this wasn’t the best story to build a message about human equality around, and sadly, Jackman’s charm isn’t enough to weather this storm.
The Greatest Showman doesn’t hit the mark it so desperately aims for, but is at least an interesting failure at the end of the day, owing more to misguided decisions than a lack in quality. There’s no doubt that musical genre enthusiasts will enjoy this more than others, as its pure fluff engineered for the holiday moviegoing crowd. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at a sleek 105 minutes, but the end result is a questionable mixed bag that’s more exhausting than exhilarating. It’s also never boring, but for a film that positions the idea of highlighting uniqueness, it feels as formulaic as possible.
Some moments make you believe that this could be a new camp classic, but for the most part it’s akin to the experience of a rollercoaster—that lurching, queasy feeling as you ascend to the highest possible point, until you move downward at an immense rate that can be downright frightening. But at least it’s a short ride.