“The Greatest Showman” stars Hugh Jackman as P. T. Barnum, the founder of the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus. Basically, this movie is the telling of his story and all that he went through to get this circus as famous as it is, which includes the controversial display of many individuals with some type of deformity or defect, commonly referred to as “freaks” in the time that this movie is set in. This movie also stars Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya.
OK, I admittedly don’t know the full backstory of everything that transpired with P. T. Barnum in his rise to fame. I do know, however, that he was morally questionable, to say the least. For as much as he seemed to crusade for entertaining people and bringing them joy, he was also a known con artist who owned slaves and even claimed to have a special type of weed that could turn black people white. So naturally, Hollywood thought it would be a good idea to make a movie that humanizes him and try to paint him in the light of “He wasn’t such a bad guy after all.” I’m sure this can’t go wrong at all.
To talk about this movie’s positives, I’ll give credit to all of the actors and performers. Hugh Jackman has apparently been campaigning to make this movie since 2009. It’s been a passion project of his and the passion does show in his performance. I have my own reservations about how the character is written, but I’ll get to that later. For now, it’s all about the performance and Jackman is damn entertaining in the role. He has a great singing voice, he displays the exuberance that you’d expect from a circus showman, and he looks like he himself is having fun in the role. The rest of the cast such as Zac Efron and Michelle Williams are also very good, the both of them showcasing true talent as actors and singers, and this leads to my next praise for this movie.
The spectacle of this entire film is truly well done. Granted, there’s a lot of CGI and some people may prefer a more practical approach, but what I saw was visually pleasing as well as harmonious. This movie has the lyricists of “La La Land” and it shows. There’s only a couple of songs in this movie that I’ll remember long after I’ve left the theater, but I still can’t deny that there were moments in the theater where I was actually entertained, tapping my foot to the music or trying to sing along in my head. From the perspective of this being an entertaining musical, I have no major complaints, but I have to judge it as a movie as well and that’s when the faults become clear.
This movie juggles some subplots that are secondary to the main story revolving around the circus and none of them were all that interesting in my opinion. There’s the romance between Zac Efron and Zendaya, the both of them doing a good job in terms of performing, but the romance itself is stale and there’s nothing new to it. Then there’s the side story of P. T. Barnum neglecting his family in his rise to fame and again, there’s nothing new added to this tired trope. If anything these subplots just feel tacked on to simply add to the film’s run time.
Also, this movie doesn’t really deliver in terms of developing some side characters, most notably the “freaks” of the circus. You get to briefly know some of them, but by and large, they’re relegated to background characters who don’t get to say or do much. It’s especially a bummer considering one scene in the film when they all have their moment to shine, but I just personally couldn’t get into the scene due to their lack of development prior. The movie expects you to care about these minor characters who are used as props more than anything, but you just don’t.
Finally, I just don’t like this movie’s attempt to make P. T. Barnum seem like a nice, likable person. We can talk all day about some of the stuff he did and I gave some examples above, but the point is that Barnum simply wasn’t a good person. This movie tries to craft him as some revolutionary showman who cared about people and saw the good in everyone despite their flaws. While it may be true that he defined what it means to be an entertainer, that doesn’t change how morally bankrupt he was. This movie doesn’t offer the slightest amount of nuance to his character and in that, there’s an injustice to the story about Barnum that could’ve been told.
Overall, “The Greatest Showman” is entertaining as a musical that has a grand sense of spectacle that’s carried out by the performers, but it doesn’t offer anything new to the table in terms of storytelling and the attempt at making Barnum seem like an absolutely swell guy is something that left a bad taste in my mouth. This movie may tout that it has the songwriters of “La La Land”, but it certainly doesn’t have the writer or director.