Rating: A feel good, fairly surface level B!
Summary: The story about how P.T. Barnum’s legendary circus came to be.
Is there anything Hugh Jackman can’t do? I’m serious- who else could have pulled off a rated R action-comic-book adaptation and a musical splendor in the same year? I really didn’t know what to expect with this movie. Featuring original music from the La La Land team along with a very talented cast led by Zac Efron and Zendaya, it sounded good on paper… but there was a wildcard factor with a first-time director, whose previous credits were all visual effects-related and was handpicked by Jackman.
I walked out feeling like I saw Moulin Rouge and La La Land give birth to a baby named The Greatest Showman. And Chicago and West Side Story are the grandparents. If you liked the waltz among the stars from La La Land and the elephant scene from Moulin Rouge– but also wanted a frenetic Can Can sequence with the control of a Cell Block Tango featuring a synchronized, choreographed jump- you will like this movie. It’s a highly entertaining piece full of spectacle, heart, and spectacle.
Yeah, that’s right. TWO spectacles. Seriously, the production value is crazy high here- vast sets, extremely elaborate costumes, intricate choreography, CGI lions (don’t worry, they only show up once)… this might be the closest we get to a Gene Kelly-type musical in this century. Damn you, Jackman! Why must you be so perfect!?
Anyone who dares to say Ryan Gosling is this generation’s Gene Kelly and that his non-musical is an instantaneous MGM musical classic… just… please.
Let’s get this out of the way- I get that P.T. Barnum and the time period are extremely problematic. Delusional Barnum was kind of a jerk. He treated his employees questionably (particularly the animals and POC), relied on exploitation, and told a fair share of lies. The mid-1800’s were a terrible time period for POC. The Greatest Showman doesn’t dwell on these things for obvious reasons and I don’t think it needs to. And for the most part, the movie is not only entertaining but even gets away with glossing over much of the time’s and subject’s controversies.
That has a lot to do with how the movie is presented- within the confines of a musical fantasy, which is pretty much perfect for a circus-set period piece. It’s established from the opening scene that this is all a vision and a result of a person’s imagination. While I do hold some films responsible for how much truth they tell, I’m not going to hold The Greatest Showman under the same standards- mostly because musicals are so, so far from the truth that they’re typically able to have a vaguer, broader message and get away with it. They’re kind of allowed to gloss over things. Musicals are a pure form of escapism, meant to expose emotion and ambition, which are honest human concepts… but that’s about as much truth as we’re meant to get from them. Anyone who holds a musical accountable for truth could do with some better homework habits, especially a razzle-dazzle musical such as The Greatest Showman– like you wouldn’t look at Hairspray for the accuracy of the Civil Rights movement. While I’d love to live the musical world, I can’t skip-dance my way down Gangs of New York. (I wish it was real! That would be so cool! And a much better way to have street fights!)
What’s important here in this piece isn’t Barnum’s persona or who he was or what deeds he may have performed- but his dreams, dedication to his vision, and seemingly impossible achievements. Efron’s romantic interest with a black woman isn’t about the obstacles of the time, but how they come together to face them. The mistreatment of the circus employees is a roadblock, but the team’s determination and sense of belonging is stronger than any farmers with pitchforks that stand in its way. Not to say that it wasn’t difficult to sit through the fantastical portrayal of a highly sanitized mid-1800’s interracial relationship, but I could have been pouting about how inaccurate the couple was treated or admiring the talent and chemistry of the two actors, the wonderful choreography, and stunt work. I chose the latter.
In this sense, The Greatest Showman is hugely successful. It’s dreamy, romantic, and elegant. It begins with a glimpse into Barnum’s vision, wins us over with a childhood romance, and presents us with a dazzling rooftop waltz- all to set the mood and tone of the piece. And yes- this is committed to being a full musical, with songs that drive the plot and unrealistic-yet-delightful presentation. Overall, the music is fine, though somewhat lacking in how a classic musical is thematically structured and will most likely sound dated in 15 years. The contemporary sounds (even a dubstep bass) are a little jarring in certain numbers; but when the music is paired with the on-screen visuals, as well as the blends in choreography (contemporary, hip-hop, various ballroom dances), it wins me over. I just about swooned over the Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor homage in The Other Side. The musical numbers do a great service in bringing the fantasy aspect to the forefront and The Greatest Showman brings all of that natural, childlike wonder back to performances in cinema- you know, that old school magic and dancing on the ceiling kinds of things.
However, there are still several moments that miss the mark. I think the large ensemble numbers work for the most part, thanks to the outstanding choreography and passion from the performers- but there are a lot of them. Yet with the exception of the Zendaya/Efron storyline, it doesn’t seem like the movie knows what to do to make its background group of misfits more relevant to the story- aside from a few spoken lines of “You’re all special!” and “Our feelings matter!” and “We’re people too!” and ensemble numbers, there are few attempts to get to know these characters or differentiate them- it’s more or less assumed that Tom Thumb, the Siamese twins, the wolf-man, bearded lady, tattooed man, etc. all share the same sentiments and shame for their unusual physical attributes. While I get they were trying to compress all this and make them appear as a team, one number devoted to maybe three or four characters with the subject of how they’ve been mistreated or one personal experience from each could have taken this a step further. Instead, this all kind of falls on the bearded woman played by Keala Settle- a character whose individual experience could have been more rich rather than “general group’s feelings” to the point where it was a tad gimmicky. (She has a great voice- I thought it was Jennifer Hudson singing in the trailers.)
There’s also a questionable side plot with the angelic-faced opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who cements Barnum as a legitimate producer instead of a purveyor of sideshow freaks. This is probably due to the character’s vacant traits and Jenny suffers from not having enough development other than representing what Barnum could have. While I understand her position as an obstacle in the circus’ journey towards social acceptance as well as Barnum’s personal life, not only does her song (Never Enough) feel out of place and slow down the movie’s momentum, but the entire character is entirely underwhelming. She’s uninteresting and inconsequential- Jenny has no significant impact on the ending, as most of the pieces end up where they would have ended up had she not been included. I would have easily traded her song, its following “Go, team!” tune, and its reprise for more information on the wolf-man.
Cast-wise, everyone is fairly strong. If I had to pick a weak link without picking on Ferguson too much (I don’t think it was her fault), it might be Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity. Not to say she has a bad performance, it’s just not up to par with everyone else. We all know how this site loves Jackman, so let’s dish praise elsewhere- Zendaya was the stand out for me and she’s had a huge 2017, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s always nice to see real talent make its way to the forefront. Efron also serves up a strong performance, though I have determined I can only take him as a serious actor in musicals (otherwise he’s Goofy Dumb Cute Guy just a la Baywatch and Neighbors).
I really liked The Greatest Showman and not for the reasons I thought I would. While I think it could have been shorter and perhaps more focused, there’s a lot of good that comes out of it for original musicals in the future. Hollywood has been dallying in pre-existing musicals for the past 18 years or so without truly, successfully pulling them off. The Greatest Showman achieves most of the technical aspects, with a strong template that musical movies should take note of. It gives me a lot of hope for the genre. Let’s have the next one star James Marsden!