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The Greatest Showman – Movie Review

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The Greatest Showman – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy 20th Century Fox

P.T. Barnum is a complicated historical figure and it’s hard not to think of that when watching The Greatest Showman. He certainly did plenty of good things, especially during his period as a politician who pushed to end slavery. However, he also exploited individuals and mistreated animals as a circus showman. The intent of this film is not to be a serious biopic of Barnum, but rather a big, flashy musical. The most fitting comparison is to Moulin Rouge, which also largely ignored historical fact in order to create a lavish song-and-dance spectacle. That’s why The Greatest Showman ultimately works as the film has the energy and a fantastic soundtrack required to make this an entertaining crowd-pleaser.

Hugh Jackman is a large reason for Barnum’s ultimate likeability in this film, as we see him attempt to prosper in show business. Jackman is a genuine showman himself and his Broadway chops are evident in every number. The opening number jumps us right into the spectacle. First-time film director Michael Gracey has a real command of the choreography. So much is happening in the frame and yet the eye is kept focused and nothing is too busy. Credit should also go to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who write one excellent song after another. Despite the obvious anachronisms, all of the songs deliver the required punch and memoreobility. Gracey and the talented ensemble of singers and dancers bring them to the screen with perfection.

The best song comes early on with “A Million Dreams”, as it follows Barnum and his longtime love Charity as they grow up. Gracey successfully shows the passage of time and smoothly transitions from the younger actors playing Barnum and Charity to Jackman and Michelle Williams. The song’s final section with the two dancing on a rooftop is especially stunning. “This is Me” works as an anthem for Barnum’s troupe and “Rewrite the Stars” is a lovely duet between Zendaya and Zac Efron. Their subplot, as an interracial couple during a time when that wasn’t accepted, allows the film to focus on more than just P.T. Barnum’s pursuits. The strength of the songs allows their anachronisms to not be too distracting. The only time the music leaps out as strange is when real-life opera singer Jenny Lind sings a tune that obviously wasn’t written in the 19th century.

The Jenny Lind subplot allows The Greatest Showman to go into Barnum’s less admirable traits as he ignores his troupe for a while to focus on the “Swedish Nightingale.” Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think of the multiple ways this film sweeps Barnum’s more troublesome actions under the rug. Elephants and lions, which he infamously mistreated, don’t even make an appearance until the end. The lives of his troupe were also not as happy-go-lucky as portrayed in this movie. Additionally, Barnum was close to a decade older than Hugh Jackman when he entered the circus business. It’s important to remember The Greatest Showman is pure fantasy and the intention was to make this a crowd-pleasing musical. Being historically accurate was the farthest thing from the filmmakers’ minds.

The strengths of The Greatest Showman comes from its musical numbers, enough that the dialogue-driven scenes are only just okay. However, it’s better for a musical to bring energy to the song numbers than have those be the low points. Pasek and Paul’s soundtrack should make this an easy transfer to Broadway and one can see Jackman’s passion for the material on the screen. The talent of the production team and the entire ensemble comes through with every musical sequence. If one can look past the historical truth and see this more as a piece of fiction, it’s a fitting spectacle for the Christmas season and certainly a better time than the real circus.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE

Stefan Ellison