Director: Michael Gracey
Run Time: 1h 45m
Sun is up and the color’s blinding,
Take a world and redefine it.
Leave behind your narrow mind,
You’ll never be the same.
Come alive, come alive!
Come one! Come all! Behold the zany, the crazy, the other-worldly! Such spectacles have been assembled by none other than the infamous P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman). The son of a penniless tailor, Phineas Barnum was always devoted to his greatest business: dazzling people. Whether with a laugh or a gasp, he took risks — and told quite a few lies — to become The Greatest Showman. His childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), stood by his side through it all. And when he met young, rich producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), his visions really took off. He had a bearded lady (Keala Settle), the world’s smallest (Sam Humphrey) and fattest (Daniel Everidge) men, and a brother & sister trapeze duo (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Barnum was always looking for ways to push the envelope to draw a bigger crowd, and thus more fame. But the motives of that poor dreamer got lost along the way and it will take a humbling series of events to remind him of what’s really important.
The Greatest Showman is an ode to a man we all know, though we’ve never met him. His visions and creations were the basis of a circus that finally closed its curtain for the last time earlier this year. He got his start by playing off of Man’s natural curiosities for the odd and different. (More like exploiting those curiosities.) As he told little Tom Thumb, people are staring and laughing anyway so [he] might as well get paid for it. It was an ingenious way to make a buck. And while this was the basis of the real Barnum, of course this movie took certain artistic liberties that were not remotely accurate historically. However, I’d like to point out that nowhere does this movie claim to be based — solely or partly — on a “true story”. It’s a movie. And a fun one at that.
Prior to becoming famous for La La Land, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul began working on The Greatest Showman. This movie has been in the making for years and Jackman managed to nab two great songwriters before they went off and won an Oscar in the interim. Pasek and Paul wrote some catchy and lovable songs for this film. At first I was disappointed with how repetitive the lyrics were. Most of the songs are three to four minutes in length, of which the lyrics only fill about 60 seconds. The musical numbers just repeat these same phrases to fill the set list. It was noticeable in the theater, but I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat for a few hours now and I become less and less bothered with each turn.
These songs would be nothing if not for the voices that bring them to life. Jackman, Williams, Efron, and Zendaya all offer their vocal talent to the memorable music. And the pair of lungs belonging to a certain Madame Lettie Lutz…just…whoa. And yes! Now, Rebecca Ferguson plays the legendary Jenny Lind. The “Swedish Nightingale” with the world’s most beautiful voice. But she doesn’t do her own signing. She does a hell of a job lip syncing though while The Voice season 3 contestant, Loren Allred, offers her voice to the soundtrack. And it truly is impeccable.
Efron and Zendaya have a beautiful duet together, which in itself is delightful. However, the whole song is performed in the air. Zendaya plays a trapeze artist — and performs her all her own stunts in case you were wondering — so Efron joins her in her element and the song is made that much more powerful by the artistic athleticism of the scene. In fact, a woman in front of me gasped during one of the bigger moments of the performance.
The cinematography of this film is a lot of fun. There are some gorgeous shots achieved by all sorts of means. Perspective, framing, symmetry, shadows… More than once I thought to myself “Wow that was clever.” This is a musical that also wanted your eyes to have a good time. Even if a particular shot isn’t something that would be framed in a museum, the use of color a movement kept your eyes busy. It was never too much to follow though, just the right amount.
Music and movement are what make this movie wonderful, but it’s all also surrounded by a positive message. The fact that Barnum looked for individuals of unique character that were considered outcasts to society was an uplifting message to share. And the PG rating makes it accessible to a wider, younger audience. The issue of course is that Barnum was actually exploiting these individuals, but the movie does manage to paint it in a more positive light. And let’s be honest. It’s not the first time a message has walked the tightrope as far as delivery. (Right, Disney?) But I believe children will only take away the fact that what makes them special is important and should be embraced, not hidden.
In addition to the teetering portrayal of Barnum’s inclusive mindset, The Greatest Showman suffers from some sporadic wooden acting, odd timelines, a noticeable lack of animals, and some other silly things I really shouldn’t care about for a family-friendly musical. But I was not pushed to the point that I fell in love with this film. I really enjoyed it and will most likely watch it again. I just wasn’t as dazzled as I could have been with Michael Gracey’s directorial debut.
I would recommend people see a matinee showing of The Greatest Showman. And don’t be afraid to bring the kids. Just be prepared to pay another $10 after you leave the theater for the soundtrack.
Edward Bloom loved to make things bigger and more extravagant than they were, just like Mr. Barnum. But unlike Barnum, Bloom had a child who despised him for it…or so he believed. If you’ve never seen Big Fish you will want to look it up.
Another option has more love, more animals, and more menace. Water for Elephants is one for the romantics. I’ll warn you though: even with Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz in the cast… they pale in comparison to the glorious lady that is Rosie the Elephant.