After the astronomic critical, box office, and awards season success of last year’s La La Land, the possibilities of seeing more filmmakers attempt to capitalize off of that film’s affirmation that there is still a hunger for glamorous, highly-stylized musicals became an almost inevitable certainty.
The Greatest Showman is a musical biopic on P.T. Barnum and his quest to build a better life for himself and his family by creating a wild and imaginative stage show that will dazzle audiences with a sensation that they’ve never experienced before. In many ways, the film itself is quite similar to the character that it’s based on. At every turn, it tries its absolute hardest to entertain and delight you with its lavish production design and explosive musical numbers, but it all, unfortunately, amounts to an admittedly fun yet empty spectacle.
The film opens with one of the more dynamic and impressive musical numbers, the title track “The Greatest Show”, which depicts Barnum’s vision of a full-fledged circus in an eye-catching performance that effectively showcases the high levels of thrills and excitement that this movie will attempt to offer. Unfortunately, after this captivating opening number, the film immediately flashes back to Barnum’s childhood where it then proceeds to work its way through every predictable and standard biopic story beat. A poor boy falls in love with a rich girl and her family doesn’t approve of their relationship because of classism. They have a family together, they start to get down on their luck, then he gets the brilliant idea for the thing that he’s most well-known for doing, everyone tells him he’s crazy and it will never work, but because we know history, we know that’s not true at all. All of these cliched plot points, along with how ineffective the non-musical segments are, reinforce the belief that if this was just a straightforward biopic instead of a musical, this film would have been completely unbearable.
With the exception of the musical numbers, the film’s strongest asset is Hugh Jackman. If there’s anything that Jackman is more committed to than Wolverine, it’s musicals. A simple viewing of Les Miserables will show you all that you need to in order to physically witness every ounce of passion, effort, and talent that Jackman pours into his musical performances. While not nearly as emotionally demanding or challenging as his performance as Jean Valjean, Jackman exudes charm and charisma as Barnum, almost as if he’s trying to literally sell his performance to you, just as Barnum would have.
While a majority of the film fully embraces the outrageous, overblown, old-timey musical that it wants to be, there’s a peculiar subplot that arises about halfway through where Barnum begins to tour with a famed and respected opera singer (Rebecca Ferguson), which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. Her song “Never Enough”, an operatic ballad, strays completely from the style and grandeur of the rest of the soundtrack’s pop-infused Broadway numbers and expresses nothing about the character or the story as a whole. Made even less impressive by the fact that Ferguson is the only performer in the film who’s not doing their own singing.
The film also attempts to incorporate a social message of tolerance and acceptance towards those who are different. An admirable effort, but in the same year in which films such as Get Out, Mudbound, and even The Shape of Water managed to tackle issues of discrimination and prejudice in much more nuanced and mature manners, it makes The Greatest Showman’s attempts feel even more insufficient in comparison. Every bigoted character is an over-exaggerated cartoonish interpretation of a racist bigot, and the overall message of acceptance is far too simplistic to be considered profound. The one instance where the film mildly succeeds is with the number “This is Me” sung by the circus performers, while unlikely to become the new anthem for oppressed groups, it’s a positive enough sentiment that it might manage to resonate with some people.