‘The Greatest Showman’ looks to hammer home the idea that there’s no business like show-business. After being laid off from his longtime job and feeling a regret for the life he once promised those he loves, the charismatic P.T Barnum (Hugh Jackman) does some endless soul-searching, finding an inspiration from those who are labeled as freaks by the society that shuns their talents. Together, with the help of his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) in tow, Barnum organizes the world’s first ever circus, a barrage of death-defying stunts and gravity-defying thrills that has never before been matched. But after suffering the backlash from the townspeople, Barnum will find himself and his show hanging by a bar of survival, trying to prove those wrong who have never seen the spectacle. ‘The Greatest Showman’ is directed by Michael Gracey, and is rated PG for thematic elements that include a fighting brawl.
‘The Greatest Showman’ succeeds with enough flair and untamed energy as a reputable musical, but doesn’t have enough psychology or honesty in its title character to achieve the greatness needed for a revealing biopic. For those who don’t know, P.T Barnum led a double life of sorts. For every great thing that is depicted in Wikipedia summaries, as well as in this picture, there is a steep list full of negatives that took away a bit of the glitz and glamour from a man who supposedly did so much for the silent minorities of the world. This raises a bit of a problem for Gracey as a commander behind the scenes, because in making this film a whimsical musical of sorts, it almost immediately takes away from the honesty of the biography, casting a shadow of betrayal as a storyteller that only feeds us the most noble of character instances. Even in finishing the film, I felt like I found out more about the circus that Barnum himself brought together, and less about the man behind the scenes who was pulling the heavy strings of doubt from a community that shun him and his cast completely. If you’re looking for credibility, this certainly isn’t the film for you, but if you’re looking for a fantasy daydream that fills your heart with magic like only the silver screen can do, ‘The Greatest Showman’ will point you the way.
There are certainly no shortages of negatives from this uneven script, and while speedy pacing might seem like the way to go in keeping the audience’s attention, it ultimately dooms the progression of character arcs and conflicts that go practically unnoticed. For the entire first act of the film, we are sped through Barnum’s childhood, meeting and courting of his future wife, and the loss of his dead end job. The screenplay takes very little time in getting to understand and shape the adult Jackman who we see before us for a majority of the film. Because of this, the script feels so hollow when compared to the song count that overwhelmingly outnumber and take such a huge piece of the pie, that the characters have very little time to win us over and make us feel invested in their temporary adversities. Barnum isn’t alone in this handicap however, as the romance of Efron and Zendaya’s characters, as well as the entire supporting cast of characters are rarely mentioned or presented from in terms of an angle that can appropriately represent their disposition. The only time that progression occurs is during a song, and it’s strange because unless you are paying your most dedicated attention, you might miss how some of these flimsy subplots seek resolving. The third act is a much noticeable improvement, especially in the rare occasion that this reputable cast actually get to stretch some dramatic muscle, but by then the familiar notes of modern musicals closing moments seems limited in offering very little in terms of variety.
As for that cast, it’s no surprise that this is a mostly one man show in Jackman’s ambitious turn as Barnum, but the silenced ensemble does give way to one glittered performance of youth along the way. I am talking of course about Zendaya as one of two trapeze artists that work in Barnum’s circus. ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ might’ve introduced us to Zendaya, but ‘The Greatest Showman’ provides the emphasis necessary in highlighting this girl as a true tear-jerker for decades to come. As I mentioned before, we don’t get a lot of time to get to know her character, so it’s in Zendaya’s emotional register where so much of her emphasis and carefree demeanor carve her out as a one of a kind in this sea of familiar faces. Sadly, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron are completely wasted here, being reduced to baggage handlers of Jackman’s character whenever his act grows stale. This disappoints me extremely for Williams in particular because she has the dramatic pull to move a house on-set, yet the film constantly keeps her grounded from ever opening Barnum’s eyes to the world that he already has. Jackman himself is every bit the charming leading man we’ve come to know, but it’s his singing that is much improved from his days on ‘Les Miserables’. It has been reported that this was Hugh’s passion project, and that all seems evident from the way he captures the screen and holds it in his hand to harvest the energy of the audience watching from beyond.
Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh off of the Oscar winning soundtrack of 2016’s ‘La La Land’, again strike gold with a collective group of songs that definitely put the cart before the horse, in terms of story versus song. To say that this is my favorite soundtrack of 2017 would be a disservice. The songs in ‘The Greatest Showman’ are full of inspirational essence and big stage presence that constantly breathe reaction with anyone they come into contact with. My personal favorite is ‘This Is Me’, a three minute unapologetic stand against any adversity that constricts you because of your appearance. Meandering yes, but there wasn’t a single song inside that didn’t move me to the point of toe-tapping glee. I’m even listening to it right now as I type this, it has that kind of infectious effect. Complimenting the music is also some vibrantly colorful set pieces and faithful wardrobe that capitalized on its fantasy aspect. The circus has rarely looked this vivacious, and if Gracey is restricted to a single compliment, it’s that he knows how to play to being under the lights. My only critique with the presentation is the limited sound editing and mixing that definitely take away the immerse effect needed in making the performances feel believable. ‘La La Land’ was a master at this, but this film definitely feels studio influenced because of the situations that constantly raise doubt. An example of this is when Zendaya and Efron’s duet as they jump around high-and-low across the stage. There’s no shortage of breath or distort in their vocals that puts us front-and-center in the moment with these lovebirds. This kind of thing always takes me out, and with the exception of a few acapella sequences that are in the moment, I kept finding myself having difficulty in crediting the syncing nature from scene to song.
THE VERDICT – ‘The Greatest Showman’ as a story feels like the most conniving piece of 19th century propaganda, in that it ignores much of the complexity behind Barnum’s dark past that beg to be told. Through a very shaky first act, the consequences of a rushed plot and underdeveloped characters boils to the top, leaving very little room to be inspired by Barnum’s life of chances taken. Beyond this crucial mistake, this ‘Showman’ swings because of its endless spectacle of song and dance, as well as a magical stage that thrives under the lights of showcase for us to soak in. Middle of the road muster for the musical genre.