The Greatest Showman

February 7, 2018 by  

If you were looking to learn more on the life of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” is probably not your best resource. If you were looking for a bombastic, CGI-infused and light hearted carnival, the film will not disappoint. The question is, which did you want to see? For me personally, the former would have been preferable to the latter. While there are some strong moments in the just-shy-of-two-hours film, “The Greatest Showman” lacks depth, character development, and even passion.

The first two discrepancies can somewhat be simply explained away: this is a musical. Musicals aren’t meant to have really either of those things; for the most part, a musical’s main purpose is to string along a plot just thick enough to get you to the next number. But the third is the film’s fault. Nothing seems to leap off the screen; the whole movie seems to be one long music video, fueled by Disney-pop style pop antics. Very few songs are memorable, and the dance numbers are crowded by digital effects. The film’s main protagonist (that could have easily also been the antagonist), P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), should be a major fixture in the story. Instead, he truly is just a ringmaster in a really loud, over-the-top parade of studio mixed songs.

The film begins with possibly the best number, “The Greatest Show”, which presents the circus in all its glory. Then, it fades to a lonesome, somber Barnum, who reflects on his life. We’re then taken back to his childhood, where he’s a very poor son of a tailor. One of his father’s clients has a young daughter, Charity, who later becomes Barnum’s romantic interest. Her father disapproves, but it doesn’t matter. Barnum works his way through meager means to whisk Charity away and make a life with her. After some run-ins with…curiosities…he gets an idea. He decides to put on a show featuring people who are basically sideshow attractions. He invents the freak show, but puts it on as a larger than life stage performance. As the show grows, he gets trapeze artists and other acts…and somehow, elephants.

At first, the show is a huge dud. New York’s finest critic (played by Paul Sparks), who founds the New York Herald, denounces the show and actually calls it a “circus”. Barnum takes the criticism and turns it on its head, reveling in the bad press, because as we all know–any press is good press. The show begins attracting more of an audience, and becomes huge. While starting his show up, he entices a high society patron named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who becomes a partner. The two run the show until Barnum meets a famous opera singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to want to begin a romance with him when they take her on the road, giving more credibility to Barnum’s brand. There are some times when he abandons his show, and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams, in adulthood), and his children. There’s a subplot of a budding relationship between Carlyle and one of the trapeze artists, Anne (Zendaya), and we of course learn a bit of background on General Tom Thumb, his first attraction (played by Sam Humphrey).

Most of this story would be well suited for a nice, long biopic. Jackman is a talented singer and performer, but he’s also a very good actor. It would have been a stronger film had it taken the subject a little deeper. It didn’t have to be a serious expose of the Barnum product; he was a bit of a phony, a great salesman, and a huckster. But, deep down, I think it’s safe to say that Barnum really believed in it. And he did give his talent a big stage…or a tent. The film itself, though, seems to fall under the weight of its treacle presentation. It has glitz and glamour, and all the styles of flashy filmmaking. Director Michael Gracey tries to put on a show, but it just didn’t carry me. A live production of this would be far more entertaining. You could forgive the thinness of the plot and the careless way the film provides lip service to Barnum’s life and achievements. But here, on a screen, we are detached.

It could have been a great spectacle, but instead…it’s just a show.

My rating: :(

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