Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman shows off his song-and-dance talent in a film that misses its potential

The Greatest Showman
(Největší showman)
Directed by Michael Gracey
With Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Most people know the name P.T. Barnum, the man behind the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is alleged to have said there is a sucker born every minute, though that is disputed. He made an art form out of what is now called public relations.

He is at the center of The Greatest Showman, a song-and-dance-filled look at the rise of the P.T. Barnum (played as an adult by Hugh Jackman) from a childhood as a beggar up to what the movie title calls him.

Fans of circus lore will right away spot that there is absolutely and positively no connection between the character on screen and the real P.T. Barnum. It is common for musical biopics to gloss over a few flaws in the subject matter, but The Greatest Showman really lays it on with a trowel.

The exact dates of the story are also covered over a bit. While there is some talk of race relations, the film leaves out that key events depicted took place during the US Civil War. It is as if the war didn’t happen at all. Not a soldier is seen. The war caused riots in New York City, and while some protesters are seen the film pretends they are upset over the circus and not at mandatory military service.

Setting that aside, if one takes the film as a fantasy cut from whole cloth and set in an alternative New York City where there was no Civil War, it has many of the elements a musical needs: flashy song numbers, romantic plots, dramatic turns of events and some bold but simplistic feel-good messages.

But it also has many cringe-worthy moments, and in the end is pretty to look at but not as great as the ballyhoo promises.

The film uses original songs, which are mostly overproduced. The period costumes and settings clash a bit with the noticeable autotune on some of the numbers.

There are some showstoppers. Barnum in real life promoted Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), and in the film, she sings the pop song “Never Enough,” as opera wouldn’t fit in with the musical motifs. The vocals were dubbed by Loren Allred, a former contestant on the TV show The Voice. The stripped-bare production of this song is breath of fresh air compared to the other numbers.

A big part of the plot is about the diverse people that Barnum gathers together: African American trapeze artists, a bearded lady, a tattooed man, a dwarf called Tom Thumb, and so on. The song “This Is Me” is sung by Keala Settle, playing the bearded lady. The lyrics celebrate that she is proud of who she is, despite not fitting into traditional molds. It has been nominated for a Golden Globe.

For reasons that are never clear, Barnum makes a partnership with a playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).

Going along with the themes of diversity and inclusivity, Carlyle becomes interested in the African American trapeze artist named Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), sporting rather modern pink-dyed hair. They have a number together called “Rewrite the Stars,” lamenting the difficulty of their relationship. While New York, where the film mainly takes place, was an exception, mixed-race marriages were not legal in much of the US all the way to 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled the laws unconstitutional.

A main point in the film is that the circus people Barnum assembles have always been outcasts, and now they get a chance to be stars. But even with success, Barnum and others still don’t fully accept them as people.

The message that everyone should be accepted for who they are is a good one, but the film beats it with a club over and over. And one can guess that in the 1850 and ’60s, egalitarianism and body-positivism weren’t Barnum’s true motive.

Parallel to that story of the circus performers bonding into a family, Barnum is also seeking acceptance. Even with his newfound wealth, New York society sneers at him and also at Carlyle, who now finds himself rejected by his former friends.

To add some drama, there is a bizarre rivalry between Barnum and newspaper columnist James Gordon Bennett, who stirs up public anger against the circus because every film needs a villain.

There is also some contrived tension between Barnum and his wife’s parents, and bullying of Barnum’s kids by other kids.

As a musical, The Greatest Show has a lot of the right elements but doesn’t push the material over the top. It tries to get a Moulin Rouge! and La La Land vibe, but misses the brass ring.

Hugh Jackman, known for action films, shines in a song-and-dance role. He makes the film worth seeing, but just barely. Zendaya as the trapeze artist also stands out among the ensemble cast. Zac Efron makes an impression as well, but his ponderous role left too many unanswered questions.

Director Michael Gracey reportedly got in a bit over his head with such a big project as a debut. James Mangold, who worked with Jackman on Kate & Leopold, The Wolverine and Logan, was called in to reshoot part of the film and oversee the post-production. This can explain some of the drastic shifts in tone, plot holes and other oddities in the film.

Production on The Greatest Showman was first announced in 2009 but was delayed several times. In a case of cosmic bad timing, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which evolved from the circus depicted in the film, closed for good May 21, 2017, due to declining interest, high operating costs and growing opposition to using live animals. They stopped using elephants in 2016.

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