On paper, the life of circus producer P.T Barnum must have seemed to be perfect fodder for a biopic movie. The man epitomises the American dream of self success and is renown world wide for popularising the modern circus and turning it into a viable business venture. He is also well known, however, for sensationalising and exploiting his performers, exposing their deformities and quirks to the paying public, popularising the common ‘freak show’, popular during the 1800s. ‘The Greatest Showman’ pushes the term ‘loosely based on’ to its limit with a derivative plot so full of clichés that even a Disney adaption might blush at this adaption. This of course, is less of a problem for animated offerings such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ based on obscure literature, whereas this film tries to present a warped version of events of people who lived and breathed only a few hundred years ago. The irony of exploiting the story of a man who notoriously exploited others for profit, for profit is not wasted.
Director Michael Gracey makes his debut and despite a very weak script, manages to make the film highly appealing to watch through a strong visual style, quick and integrated scene transitions and a glorious colour palette that evokes the feeling of a broadway musical. While the characters and story are all paper thin, the movie at least has a highly appealing tone and look to it; the choreography, costume design and sets are all fantastic and a feast for the eyes. What Gracey lacks in character development and narrative structure, he makes up for with gorgeous cinematography and a fast pace. The brevity of scenes acts as both a detriment and a benefit to the film: on the one hand, the characters are allowed no time to just breathe and develop thus feeling more like singing and dancing puppets as opposed to real people. However, the breakneck pace does mean that very few scenes are dull or uninteresting as the film is constantly throwing a new set, song or Hugh Jackman riding an elephant (?) at us.
Though the cast have very little to work with the weak script, most deliver serviceable performances. Hugh Jackman is unsurprising though ultimately likeable as Barnum. Zac Efron and Zendaya also deliver fairly warm performances as the typical ‘star crossed lovers’ sub plot. The rest of the cast are all fine, but just fine. There are no terrible performances but nothing that will be remembered a few hours after watching. However, as performers of song and dance, they are faultless. The choreography and songs are loud and bombastic with high energy vocals and dance steps being spot on from the entire cast. Most Broadway musical loves will likely adore this movie, as the ‘showy’ aspects entirely hit the mark. However, if you’re a musical lover looking for something that has both fantastic songs and show-stopping numbers to compliment an engaging story, you might leave disappointed- ‘Les Miserables’ this is not.
In this sense, I find myself quite conflicted about ‘The Greatest Showman.’ I listen to at least one song from the soundtrack every day and find the whole score incredibly appealing and exciting. The songs are expertly crafted with clever lyrics that tell a story through a song (which every musical song should do, but so many fail to) and crucially, they are all memorable and catchy. I find myself humming ‘The other side’ far more often than I should. So then why don’t I love this movie? Why wasn’t it one of my favourites from 2017? I think its because it feels transparent and shallow. The filmmakers are trying to create a big, bombastic musical and have chosen the flimsy narrative of Barnum purely due to the array of striking visuals and characters that the story can lend to a musical. I get it, but it means that the film ends up with very little heart as a result. Character motivations are blurry at best and despite shying away from Barnum’s more capitalist and obliquitous ways of exploiting people for money, when they actually do touch on his treatment of the performers, the movie has no idea what it wants us to think of Barnum. Its the classic end of second act slump where the lead is at his lowest, however its not because of his realisation of how he’s treated the performers, its because his wife has left him. The performers just forgive him and start singing the (admittedly exceptional) ‘From now on’ and all is very, very quickly forgiven for some reason.
So all in all, ‘The Greatest Showman’ has completely polarised me; I both love and dislike it. The songs are fantastic and are up there with some of the modern greats like ‘Book of Mormon’ or ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ But as a story, it is beyond weak and flimsy. Creating an uplifting story about the man who famously popularised freak shows and said ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ is bold enough, but the creation of fake and supposedly important people in his life like Phillip Carlyle (Efron) is pretty shallow. Putting any historical inaccuracies aside, the film just doesn’t have very engaging characters. Jenny Tunt, Charity Barnum and even P.T himself are just not very well developed and are one note caricatures rather than feeling like real people like say, Jean Valjean does. However, its still worth seeing and is a spectacle in terms of visuals and especially in terms of songs- the soundtrack really is fantastic. If you go in expecting a flashy performance of excellent songs with equally excellent choreography and just treat the plot as a means to an end to go from song to song, there is enjoyment to be found. A shame however, that such incredible music is weighed down by such an underwhelming plot.