Synopsis: Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya Coleman, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle
Director: Michael Gracey
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: The Greatest Showman is a movie with a huge identity crisis. An old fashioned musical in structure and feel populated with modern style pop tunes and performances, it’s a bizarre film to experience firsthand but one I must admit I’ve had swirling around in my head ever since I saw it. Clever (or cunning) marketing has positioned this gigantic piece of cotton candy to be front and center whether you like it or not. Billboards, television advertisements, a live preview performance in the middle of last week’s A Christmas Story Live!, not to mention endless appearances by its stars on talk shows have all made The Greatest Showman impossible to miss. So with all the hub bub and howdoyado, does it wind up being something you want to fit into your busy holiday schedule?
I guess the answer is how far you like your patience to be tested. For me, the movie works in fits and spurts but the time between the material that lands starts to grow wider the longer this circus is in town. I walked out of the screening feeling like I was going to give this one an outright pan but like I mentioned before, I was seeking out specific songs from the soundtrack before the end of that day. Oscar winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) have a way with a hook and more than one song has the potential to become the earworm you won’t be able shake. I’ve even fallen prey; I’ve been humming the lovely power ballad “Never Enough” sung by Loren Allred (and not by actress Rebecca Ferguson who mimes the singing rather well) for days now.
As mentioned above, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too and that greed starts with the opening credits. The old 20th Century Fox logo appears but then is quickly replaced by the new one as Pasek and Paul’s opening number begins. Why the two logos? If director Michael Gracey wanted to give us a throwback musical, why not start with a bit of retro-ness and juxtapose that with his Moulin Rouge-esque filmmaking style? Or just go modern from the get-go and hit the ground running?
The story of creative entrepreneur and eventual circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum has been turned into a musical already (1980’s rarely produced but quite lovely Barnum) and at 105 minutes the movie is a sanitized Cliff Notes version of Barnum’s humble upbringing and gradual rise to legendary stardom. In fact, the second number of the movie covers several decades of his life as Barnum (Hugh Jackman, Logan) goes from being the poor boy in love with a rich girl all the way through their eventual marriage. You won’t be finished with your popcorn before Barnum and his wife (Michelle Williams, Wonderstruck) have had two kids and are struggling to make ends meet.
Through some quick thinking and creative deception, Barnum manages to secure a loan to buy a museum of stuffed oddities he eventually turns into a theater brimming with side show acts. A bearded lady, the world’s smallest man, a pink wigged trapeze artist (the lovely Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming), and more are all part of the show…and they can sing to the rafters too (so can Jackman and, to a lesser extent, Williams). Barnum’s circus draws huge crowds but doesn’t help gain him access to the cultured upper crust he so desperately wants to be a part of. Even becoming partners with a society darling (Zac Efron, The Lucky One) gets him an audience with the Queen but not the respect of his fellow New Yorkers.
While in London, Barnum becomes enamored with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson, The Snowman) who agrees to come to the states for a Barnum produced tour. Barnum sees it as his chance to go legit and distances himself from his original entertainers, betraying their trust along the way. Hints of desired infidelity can only go so far in a PG-rated family film but Lind doesn’t seem to have sailed across the sea just to sing her song and cash a check. By the time Barnum is arriving by elephant to his daughters ballet recital I was ready for it all to be over…and then it pretty much was.
Working with a by the numbers script from Jenny Bicks (Rio 2) and Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast), director Gracey never lets his camera (or editor) rest for too long. It’s imitation Baz Lurhman through and through but there’s something oddly watchable about the whole endeavor. Jackman and Efron are fine song and dance men and their number is a percussive highlight, as is Keala Settle’s knockout “This is Me” which sees Pasek and Paul going for Oscar number two. Sure, overall the music largely sounds the same and a few numbers are indistinguishable from the other (I barely remember the song Williams lilts through) but there are a few winners. It’s a strange choice not to have Ferguson do any of her own singing and I think it robs the movie of some sincerity…though to be fair it’s already strange that a world famous opera singer is singing a rafter raiser in her chest voice belt mix in the first place.
So what to do about this weird blend of current sound and throwback moviemaking? It’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this year and I find myself growing more affectionate for it even as I write this review. It’s desperation to please initially rubbed me the wrong way but the film has its heart in the right place. Would I see The Greatest Showman again? Probably. I wouldn’t run away with this circus but I wouldn’t run from it either.