the Greatest Showman: Insubstantial but Spectacular

Jordan Bosch

 Michelle Williams is really good as Hugh Jackman's partner, despite the comically obvious ten year age gap between two characters meant to be the same age.

Michelle Williams is really good as Hugh Jackman's partner, despite the comically obvious ten year age gap between two characters meant to be the same age.

Has anyone noticed it’s become a Hollywood tradition, in recent years, to put out a musical around Christmas. Whether it be something original, or a long-awaited adaptation of a Broadway hit, we’ve been getting them just about annually since 2012. This years’ serving is The Greatest Showman, the debut film from director Michael Gracey, based on the story of P.T. Barnum and how he came to create the recently deceased Barnum & Bailey Circus. It’s a movie that for all its pomp and scale, is just spectacle -but damn, what a spectacle!

Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has risen from meagre beginnings as the son of a tailor to marry his wealthy love Charity (Michelle Williams). With ambition to provide a comfortable life for his family and a number of failed jobs behind him, he takes a risky venture to open a wax museum. After it fails to make money however, he latches onto the idea of turning it into a show of human curiosities, recruiting a number of acts including a bearded lady, Siamese twins, and a dwarf. As the show succeeds, Barnum’s higher aims come into conflict with what he set out to do.

By far the weakest aspect of this movie is the story, which is really shallow and clichéd. It’s every arc about someone striving for more only to realize what’s really important that’s been a staple of movies for decades. The early parts of the movie, especially, are preoccupied with whimsy and fluff, and the script is generally not very strong. It’s also a shame that few of the characters are realized, as while there’s an emphatic theme on the plight of the socially outcast “curiosities”, only a couple of them have any significant part in the story. It’s not good when the cast of Tod Browning’s Freaks (which came out in 1932) are more developed and well-rounded than these characters. It doesn’t really do justice to the idea of shining a light on these people when most of them are in the background, with more attention given over to Barnum’s family or his partner Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron). I wouldn’t mind this as much if it weren’t obvious in a number of scenes how much historical revisionism was taking place. I don’t know a lot about Barnum, but I can certainly spot Hollywood tropes; and while I like that the film at least addressed his negative character traits, his selfishness, and gave an understandable reason for them, he still feels like a heavily polished twenty-first century impression of the actual Barnum. 

In spite of that, Hugh Jackman gives a great performance, demonstrating perfect casting, as he’s arguably one of the greatest showmen today. It’s not on par with his work in Les Miserables or Logan, but he plays every emotion well and is clearly thoroughly engaged with the part.

Michelle Williams is really good as his partner, despite the comically obvious ten year age gap between two characters meant to be the same age.

Zac Efron is quite good in his first musical since his days at the Disney Channel, working well off of his love interest, Zendaya, playing a trapeze artist acrobat.

 Zac Efron is quite good in his first musical since his days at the Disney Channel, working well off of his love interest, Zendaya, playing a trapeze artist acrobat.

Zac Efron is quite good in his first musical since his days at the Disney Channel, working well off of his love interest, Zendaya, playing a trapeze artist acrobat.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer who catches Barnum’s eye, and Keala Settle is pretty formidable as the bearded lady. Also, Paul Sparks has a good supporting role as James Bennett, a critic for the New York Herald, adversary of Barnum, and supposedly the coiner of the word ‘circus’ for Barnum’s show.

But what really saves The Greatest Showman are its musical numbers. The songs are written by Pasek and Paul, the same songwriters behind La La Land, and while none of these have quite the power of those songs, they’re really well done. The diversity anthem “This is Me” is easily the most catchy, the most driven, the one used in the trailers and likely the big Oscar contender; but “A Million Dreams” is also a stand-out. They’re written in a very bombastic Broadway style and contemporary, rather than ascribing to the period or a particular theme. The one time this hurts the film is the song “Never Enough” which is presented unambiguously as a song taking place in-story and thus entirely out of place in the nineteenth century. But it’s still sung and presented nicely, like all of them. In fact the productions of a lot of these songs are visually marvelous. For a rookie, Gracey really knows how to stage musical numbers with great choreography and unbridled energy. In the fast-paced ones like “The Greatest Show” and “Come Alive” there’s so much going on and so much genuine joy. And in this it does feel like a heartfelt celebration of the circus, bad CG animals aside. Even the cinematography stands out in many of these sequences, conveying more effectively the meanings in the songs. “This is Me” is a good example of this, as is one particular technical trick in the reprise of “Never Enough”.

The Greatest Showman is a movie that’s actually worth sitting through, despite its often crap plot, to get to each next musical sequence. 

Spectacle certainly isn’t everything, as the similar film The Greatest Show on Earth proved, but this is a movie that does it so well and with such genuine care from the cast and crew that I can’t help but like it at least a little.

The Greatest Showman is now Playing at Galaxy Cinemas

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