While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) is not as good as last year’s sensational LA LA LAND (2016), it does boast the same songwriting tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Academy Award for their work on LA LA LAND and who are back at it again here with eleven new songs for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
For this reason alone, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is worth a trip to the theater, but that’s not all. There’s a lot to like about this new musical.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) beginning when he was a young boy living in poverty and highlighting his budding friendship with a wealthy young girl named Charity. As adults, they fall in love and get married, and Barnum promises Charity (Michelle Williams) the life she always wanted, and the way he believes he can do that is by entertaining others.
He opens up a Barnum wax museum but finds he can hardly sell a ticket. When his young daughters tell him no one comes to the museum because there’s nothing alive inside, he remembers a time from his childhood when he was offered an apple by one of the street people, a person with a facial deformity, and he gets the idea that if his museum featured these types of folks, people would come because they want to see the bizarre and the unusual.
So, Barnum goes out and assembles a large group of the strange and unusual, and while these folks are admittedly nervous and wary about being laughed at and exploited, they soon realize that Barnum has their best interests at heart. Eventually, they become a very close-knit family.
When a major newspaper critic slams the museum as a “circus,” Barnum embraces the criticisms and uses them to promote his show more, even going so far as to change the name from Barnum’s Museum to Barnum’s Circus. The show is a huge hit, fueled by Barnum’s unceasing enthusiasm and energy, but it’s not without obstacles, as there are violent protests by locals who declare that the “freaks” should not be seen. And when a major scandal involving Barnum himself erupts, things hit rock bottom. But the show must go on, and against all odds, it does.
There are two main themes on display in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, and both work well. The first is the power of imagination. Time and time again, we see Barnum start with nothing but an idea, one that he’s not afraid to pursue, and when he does, the ideas become reality. The theme that one is only limited by one’s imagination or lack thereof, that if you can think it, you can do it, really resonates. Barnum is presented as a man full of imagination, while the naysayers around him are seen a close-minded “realists.”
The other theme is inclusion and acceptance. Barnum is viewed as a hero to the eclectic group of outcasts he has assembled, as someone who gave them a platform. For the first time in their lives, they are accepted and loved, and for many of them it’s the first time they are truly happy. The circus is not presented here as a place that exploited them, but rather as their home. Furthermore, it gave them a livable wage.
Still, things aren’t perfect. When Barnum promotes the famous European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to New York to perform in the U.S. for the first time, he is uncomfortable about having his circus “cast” appear among this high-class New York audience and does his best to hide them out of view, much to their chagrin.
And when junior partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) falls in love with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) who is black, he finds that being seen with her in public is still something he’s not able to do, in spite of his feelings for her.
The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon delivers some solid storytelling. The characters aren’t always fleshed out as well as they could be, and sometimes moments of adversity are overcome in the blink of an eye, striking at the story’s credibility, but for the most part the storytelling here is commendable. Writer Bill Condon also directed another musical I really liked this year, Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).
Of course, the biggest reason to see any musical is the music, and I really enjoyed both the songs and the music score. While not as memorable as their songs for LA LA LAND, the work here by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is still quite enjoyable. I found the music rousing and the lyrics poignant. Some may have trouble with the modernized pop-like score, instead of something more fitting for the 1800s time period, but I liked it just fine.
Hugh Jackman is a natural fit in the role of P.T. Barnum. It’s his first film musical role since LES MISERABLES (2012). and while his work here as Barnum isn’t as impressive as his work as Jean Valjean, it’s still quite satisfying and enjoyable. He makes Barnum believable as a man who simply wanted to entertain others and be able to support his wife and two daughters. He effortlessly performs the ambitious song and dance numbers, and easily carries this movie on his back. He provides a strong likable presence from beginning to end.
As Barnum’s wife Charity, Michelle Williams doesn’t fare as well. Williams is an outstanding actress, even in small roles, as made evident by her phenomenal supporting performance in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016), a role that earned her an Oscar nomination. Here, she plays second fiddle to Jackman’s Barnum throughout. The dutiful wife, Charity remains loyal to the end, but as a role for Michelle Williams, there’s hardly anything for her to do, even though she receives second billing here. William’s lack of relevant screen time was probably my least favorite part of this movie.
Zac Efron makes for a likable Phillip Carlyle, the man who works his way up to becoming Barnum’s business partner.
Rebecca Ferguson plays singer Jenny Lind with mixed results. I like Ferguson a lot, and we just saw her in the thriller THE SNOWMAN (2017) with Michael Fassbender, as well as in the science fiction thriller LIFE (2017). Here as famed singer Jenny Lind, Ferguson possesses a strong presence in her dramatic scenes, but she’s not quite as natural with the song numbers, and since she’s supposed to be the greatest singer in the world at the time, this is slightly problematic.
On the other hand, Zendaya is absolutely mesmerizing as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was onscreen, and it’s a meaty role. She is constantly dealing with racism, and life for her is a battle. We catch glimpses of it through the struggles she faces in her own relationship with Phillip.
She delivers one of the best performance in the movie, and she’s certainly in one of the most dynamic scenes in the film, an intense rapid-fire musical number with Zac Efron in which she also performs on the trapeze. The speed with which this number moves is really impressive. Supposedly, Zendaya did all her own trapeze stunts in the film.
I really enjoyed Zendaya earlier this year for her work in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), but I think her work here in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is even better.
Keala Settle also stands out as Letti Lutz, the “bearded lady,” as does Sam Humphrey as the diminutive Tom Thumb.
And Paul Sparks is memorable as critic James Gordon Bennett, the man who is relentless in his criticism of Barnum and his show. He and Jackman share some memorable scenes, especially as they discuss their philosophies as to what constitutes art and entertainment. Bennett doesn’t see Barnum’s show as even being close to art, yet he can’t deny that the audiences love it, while Barnum views Bennett as being shallow and close-minded, or as he says “an art critic who can’t find joy in art.” Sparks has been playing author Thomas Yates on Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-2017), and he plays a similar role here as critic Bennett.
First time director Michael Gracey does a nice job here. He imbues the film with nonstop energy. The dance numbers are in-your-face rousing and the songs inspirational. The pacing is also good. The movie’s one hour and 45 minute running time flies by fast.
Again, I would have enjoyed more character development, and I would have preferred it had some of the obstacles in which the characters faced here took more grit and resolve to solve. As things stand, everything gets wrapped up in a neat tidy package. Even the ultra-optimisitic LA LA LAND threw us a curve at the end.
Also, the CGI-created animals here, the elephants and lions, look pretty darn fake.
But these are small concerns. The film stands on its music and dance numbers, and on these notes, it doesn’t disappoint.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN might not be the greatest musical ever made, and it might not give us an honest look at P. T. Barnum, who is seen here in nothing short of a one-sided positive light, but it is a highly imaginative energetic musical full of songs that will make you want to get up and dance. In short, it’s generous with its joy, and you’d be hard-pressed not to leave the theater happier than when you came in.
P. T. Barnum would approve.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.