A film P.T. Barnum would be proud of. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
The Greatest Showman (2017) is a biographical musical directed by Michael Gracey (directorial debut). It stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum as he establishes the world’s first ‘circus’ by recruiting the misfits and freaks of the day in order to create a spectacle that becomes a worldwide sensation.
The Greatest Showman has been lighting up screens around the world for a couple of months now. And I do meaning lighting up. While it started middling, this film has become a rapidly growing sensation as word of mouth has seen people flocking to see it over and over again. And I can see why. The film can be compared to a fireworks display – lighting up the screen with great bursts of colour and passion to create a spectacle that can be enjoyed by all. But sadly fireworks is all it amounts to – a brief if appeasing distraction that offers little to no substance.
As plot goes, it hits the big dot points of P.T. Barnum’s life… if those dot points were written by Barnum’s biggest fan. Its shallow, overly sanitised, hits all the cliches and possibly worst of all is incredibly historically inaccurate. Taken as complete fiction rather than based on true events (because honestly it basically is) this could be excused, but that doesn’t justify the unhealthy helpings of cliches and shallow messages the film indulges in. For a film that’s consistently trying to herald the ‘outcasts’ of society, it spends an awful lot of its time following a slimy businessman who, if you read between the lines, is essentially making his fortune off their uniqueness. Beyond one song and a handful of ensembles, the focus consistently remains on Barnum and his co-owner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) in order to shove the actual interesting characters like Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and the Bearded Lady (a stellar but underused Keala Settle) to the side. This is clearly a passion project for both director Michael Gracey and Hugh Jackman and that passion is clear to see on the screen, but its so horribly misguided in its direction that it feels wasted.
What that passion and commitment isn’t wasted on however is the musical numbers. Completely contrary to the film’s plot the actual ‘musical’ side of the film is utterly spectacular. The production design, choreography, passion, performances are all stellar and make for a grand display of fireworks every time the singing randomly breaks out. Also, you know that big grand song every musical has either at the beginning or middle? Yeah, that’s every song in the Greatest Showman. While that may make every song memorable, it also makes a lot of the music bleed together and steadily wear you down over its 105 minute runtime until the final song just feels mute. Its still good, albeit quite modern, music that’s elevated by incredible presentation but it can’t help but feel that each song was designed to be its own single. Which quite possibly may have been the intent.
Much like the music, all the passion (however misguided) bleeds over into the performances as well. Hugh Jackman I swear has the charisma of ten men and even when he’s in a so-so movie he’s a joy to watch. Not only a great singer, dancer and actor, he also manages to be incredibly likeable and it would be vaguely infuriating if I was actually capable of being mad at the guy. Supporting cast of Zac Efron and Zendaya are both great as well. Both can sing, both can dance and while neither can match Jackman’s passion they’re still doing their damnedest. The one sore spot is Michelle Williams (potentially the most talented actor in the entire film) who is completely and utterly wasted as Barnum’s wife Charity. She embodies every doting housewife cliche under the sun and with the exception of a single forgettable musical number she has almost nothing to do.
Its not hard to see why The Greatest Showman is so popular. Its a great spectacle of sound and light with a sweet message and likeable people. Its just a shame then that it has to be so hollow. I may still be listening to the soundtrack on loop, but that doesn’t excuse how cliched, shallow and horribly inaccurate the actual movie is. The Greatest Showman is a great Broadway musical trapped inside a bad film – which ultimately amounts to it being just ok.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Not Recommended