Striking visuals and Zendaya on a trapeze aren’t enough to overcome the many faults of The Greatest Showman, a musical very loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum. The film lays out Phineas Taylor Barnum’s transition from a poor young boy accompanying his tailor dad on visits to wealthy clients to a dreamer who uses someone else’s worthless ships to con his way into a loan to start a wax museum.
P.T. (Hugh Jackman) has huge dreams and with his loving wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), and their two beautiful daughters cheering him on, P.T. grows his tiny museum into a successful circus. He seeks out individuals with unusual physical characteristics to populate his circus, promising them adulation from the crowd rather than the derision of strangers. And, for a while at least, he supports his troupe and the circus flourishes.
Unfortunately, P.T.’s dreams of being accepted into Manhattan society don’t materialize even though his fortune increases. In the film’s least appealing storyline, P.T. Barnum neglects his circus performers to promote Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), hoping it will lend him some legitimacy and earn the respect of the people he considers his peers. His circus, and his marriage, suffer as he takes to the road on a concert tour with Jenny. Of course, he’s finally brought to his senses in a very Hollywood-esque turn of redemption.
The Greatest Showman makes the controversial businessman into a, if not heroic, at least likable figure. The film version of P.T. Barnum is highly romanticized, which is fine as The Greatest Showman was never advertised as a biopic. However, the alterations to Barnum’s story lead me to wonder why screenwriters Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks didn’t more fully abandon his history and make the film more of a musical celebration of the past. The trailers tease a much more joyful film than is actually delivered by first-time feature film director Michael Gracey, and that’s not only a shame but also a missed opportunity. When you’ve got Jackman singing and dancing in the lead, and you’ve enticed the audience in with trailers emphasizing the vibrant musical numbers, why bring the film to a skidding stop with a Barnum and Jenny Lind roadtrip?
It’s P.T. Barnum’s story, and to a lesser extent his relationship with Charity and then Jenny, that’s front and center in The Greatest Showman. Unfortunately, Jackman and Williams’ chemistry isn’t as strong as Zac Efron and Zendaya’s. Efron’s upper-class writer and Zendaya’s wrong side of the tracks trapeze artist relationship turns out to be the more compelling. Efron and Zendaya’s scenes sparkle and when The Greatest Showman focuses on their storyline it’s at its most engaging.
In addition to the lack of chemistry, I had an issue with the age difference between Jackman and Williams. Their characters are introduced as children who look the same age (or at least within a year or two). As adults, the age difference is noticeable and distracting.
The Greatest Showman’s underdeveloped plot might have been forgiven if it was compensated for by incredible musical numbers. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. The songs all sound alike in this musical drama, and you won’t have to worry about any of them getting (annoyingly) stuck in your head.
The songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul earned an Oscar for their show-stopping “City of Stars” number in La La Land and a Tony Award for the critically acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen. The fact “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman is being recognized with awards nominations speaks more to their reputation, Hugh Jackman’s likeability, and a lack of memorable original songs in 2017 films, than it does to the quality of The Greatest Showman’s musical numbers.
One song in particular feels out of place, in respect to a supporting character. Rebecca Ferguson plays Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind whose beautiful soprano voice earned her the nickname the Swedish Nightingale. Ferguson’s singing voice was dubbed by Loren Allred, but it’s never explained why, after Barnum touts Jenny as this amazing opera singer loved by audiences worldwide, the only song Pasek and Paul penned for her to sing in the concert scenes is a pop tune. The song doesn’t fit the character’s description and it’s confusing as to why she’s even introduced as an opera singer if the audience only hears her sing something that could have come from Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey’s repertoire.
The Greatest Showman whitewashes P.T. Barnum’s story, which is not in the least bit unexpected. What is unexpected is how flat the film is, despite the efforts of its talented cast.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2017