The Greatest Showman is a movie musical about P.T. Barnum – the founder of America’s first circus. Movie musicals are not known for their historical accuracy, but – considering that there are many biographies of the man which paint him as anywhere from an honest entrepreneur to a cynical con man making a fortune by exploiting the pain of his collection of freaks and oddities – this film is far too superficial. Except for a few exceptional songs…
The Greatest Showman opens with Barnum as a dirt poor boy with a crush on the daughter of wealthy parents – who send her off to finishing school to keep the two apart. Ellis Rubin and Skylar Dunn are fine as young Barnum and Charity Carlisle.
Cut to years later and Barnum (Hugh Jackman) arrives on her doorstep to take Charity (Michelle Williams) away. Her father predicts that she’ll be back.
The two marry and have two daughters.
When Barnum loses his job at a trading company (their ships sank beneath the China Sea), he uses the sunken ships as collateral to start a museum of oddities and exotica – which does not flourish until his daughter Helen (Cameron Seely) suggests he needs something that’s alive.
Inspired, he sets out to collect a band of freaks – a little person becomes General Tom Thumb; a tall Slavic man becomes the Irish Giant; he hires a brother and sister trapeze act. Eventually, he presents these new additions to his museum and the public loves it – though critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) does not.
Not only does Barnum not mind, he appropriates one of the words from Bennett’s scathing review and the museum becomes P.T. Barnum’s Circus!
Still the toffs/snobs don’t like him and his show, so Barnum enlists the aid of young, popular playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) – and before you know it, he and his troupe are meeting Queen Victoria.
When that doesn’t sufficiently enhance his standing, he brings European opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to America and sets out on a nationwide tour with her. In so doing, he goes from being the loving husband and father to being the absentee husband and father – and while he’s away things begin to go south for him.
There is, of course, a redemption and renewal arc that follows, in which romance grows between Philip and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya); Barnum’s troupe of freaks and oddities take it upon themselves to own their uniqueness, and Barnum figures out that he actually has two families – and he owes both of them.
Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, and directed by Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman is frequently dazzling to look at, but characterizations are so shallow that they could be designated as ‘wading pool.’
The story requires so many events – epic and intimate – to fit into a just under two-hour running time that there’s no time for nuance; no time for anything real to happen between the songs.
Making a movie musical is taking a big swing, but taking a big swing doesn’t mean much if the film doesn’t connect on every level.
With The Greatest Showman, most of the songs are very good and one or two (especially This Is Me) are showstoppers, but even with very-good-to-great-songs, I spent most of film wondering what Baz Luhrmann might have done with the project.
The end result is reasonably entertaining, but it could have been so much more.
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