Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams
Director: Micheal Gracey
Running Time: 104 mins
Synopsis: Based on the life of original circus entertainer PT Barnum (Jackman) at the turn of the century. This musical charts how he turned himself from nothing into one of the greatest Showmen of all time, creating a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation with the help of a bevy of peculiar and talented folk, whom themselves face their own personal challenges.
It will most likely take you about 10 mins to decide whether The Greatest Showman will be right for you or not. Those weaned on the immense success of this years La La Land, to the tune of over $400 million worldwide, and especially those who loved it despite not being a huge fan of musicals (this guy included), will see that films embrace of complex nuance and heartbreaking melancholy replaced with cheesy earnestness. But if you buy into it there is much fun to be had from this old school chunk of symphonic spectacle. Opening with a retro version of the 20th Century Fox logo, before segueing into the first big number, one thing becomes clear, this is an unabashed tribute to the musicals of yesteryear. Well it eventually becomes like that. The opening is unfortunately prone to a modern streak of fast paced time jumps and editing tricks, that whilst sporadically clever, leaves the early portions feeling a little jumpy.
We first meet PT Barnum (Jackman) as a young boy. Poor, bedraggled and servicing wealthy patrons with his tailor father. One such patron proves aggressive, however, when PT takes a shine to his daughter Charity (played as an adult by Williams). The class difference, being the early 1900s of course, provides ample opportunity for her father to belittle, badger and generally mock the young man. It ignites a fire in Barnum, a desire to measure up, that permeates the whole film. As they grow older together the two of them fall in love, nicely conveyed in that oh so musical of things, the montage. It is evident throughout that there is an element of the Showman in PT, driven to dance, sing and enthusiastically pontificate with gleeful joy. Financial woes and a desire to give his new family the life they deserve (the couple have two young girls) Barnum conjures an idea to bring together an assortment of oddities, freaks and acrobatic folk to produce a show the likes of which the world has never seen.
At this point the film begins to ease off the brakes a tad, and is all the better for it. Whilst the songs are insanely catchy (more on them later) this first act tries too hard to cram everything in as quickly as possible in order to get to the meat of the tale. Barnum finds himself facing such unique wonders like the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), the tiny Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and the acrobatic trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Nobly PT never sees them as outcasts or freaks, rather characterful, talented and above all else human beings. There is a subtle hint that he is in fact manipulating them, giving them encouragement so as to stage his show and profit off of them. Alas the film isn’t willing to explore these depths too much, content with its more hopeful themes, which whilst not a problem (in this dark world of 2017 a plea for tolerance is a powerful cry) it could’ve given added nuance to this earnest tale.
Newcomer director Gracey hones in on what he wants to say and sticks to it, even though he does bang the drum a little too much. The key mantra is kindness and acceptance, particularly in accepting yourself for who you are. First we have these outcasts, abused by those around them, notably the unruly mob that gradually grow outside their theatre, but finding strength in each other and the confidence Barnum’s shows give them to own their eccentricities. Standout song This is Me is a booming, bountiful, brilliant ode to this, led by a storming vocal performance from Settle. Then we have Zac Efron’s playwright, driven down by countless ill attended plays and unsure of just where he belongs in this world. Efron maximises that High School Musical charisma, with his cheeky glint and handsome looks, especially in a terrifically staged musical number with Hugh Jackman as he attempts to persuade him to join the group. His arc slightly mirrors Jackman’s, both are desperate to please an elitist family in doing so pushing away the ones who truly care for them.
Hugh Jackman gets the brunt of the heavier material and ably delivers. Equal turns playful, outlandish, funny, arrogant, affectionate and vulnerable. He never turns away from showing off Barnum’s bad side, whether that be neglecting his family or cruelly turning away the performers who helped bring his success in the first place. There is very little originality in his arc for sure, but Jackman deftly handles things, managing to always be likeable and believable even when things reach peak cheese. Sadly the women around him are given rather short shrift. Supporting players Settle and Zendaya make a solid impression, conveying their fears and weaknesses with graceful clarity. However Michelle Williams is reduced to neglected wife, a bystander in Barnum’s show and film. Same goes for Rebecca Ferguson, charming as famed opera singer Jenny Lind (whom PT sees as a way to legitimise his show with the upper class) and responsible for the films biggest soprano moment with her solo song Never Enough (albeit not sung by Ferguson rather Loren Allred and dubbed over). But she is little more than a cipher to put Barnum in a compromising position and drive him away when the story demands it.
All these strands come together in a delightfully lavish and heartwarming finale, Gracey staging things with as much theatrical chutzpah as he can. Production wise he acquits himself admirably for a debut. Sets are large scale and largely in camera, lending things an effective tangibility. He coats his visuals in a dreamy almost Alice in Wonderland fantasy glow which largely works to steer us back into the retro musical vibe he clearly admires. Although there is some weak CGI background work at times. The musical numbers themselves are the real highlight, as it should be. Gracey staging each one with clear geography, crisp choreography and a whimsical playfulness. It certainly helps that the songs, hailing from La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are insidiously catchy. Each distinctively different, eloquently written and far too easy on the tongue (believe me you’ll be singing these songs for days after).
It is hard to fully escape the sheer cheesiness on display though. Musicals are not always known for their subtlety but this one positively beats you black and blue with its messages. Notably a recurring critic character played by Paul Sparks who routinely spells things out for the audience just in case we didn’t get the point. There is also a slight inertia to the scenes between the songs, Gracey not always seeming interested in telling an actual story (the middle section lacks any real incident). But I cannot deny the film left me smiling come its big hearted finish. In a world of constant judgements, abusive intolerance and hurtful words, it is nice to see a film champion the beauty lying behind every one of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. If La La Land kicked off 2017 as the musical lamenting the passing of time and love, The Greatest Showman ends the year determined for us to bring back a little hope and joy.
Verdict: Set to maximum cheese and rough around the edges when the music isn’t playing, The Greatest Showman still manages to delight with a warm heart, killer songs and terrific performances.