As a movie musical, The Greatest Showman
is all sizzle and very little steak. Oh, there's a lot to admire here. A lot of time, effort and energy has clearly gone into this. And it also features Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum doing what he does best, being one of the best song and dance men around. He's clearly having the time of his life, and I admired his performance and seemingly-endless charisma. Where the movie seemed less sure to me was in telling the story of Barnum, and making it seem like one that was worth telling, even as a splashy musical spectacular.
Jackman's rendition of Barnum has been sanded completely of any vices, faults or imperfections. He has a constant twinkle in his eye, and a spring in his step. He dearly loves his wife Charity (Michelle Williams), and constantly delights in his two young daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). His daughters, who seem to be around seven or eight, never age during the course of the movie, even though the story seems to span a number of years. Or at least it seems like a number of years in Barnum's life have been crammed into roughly 100 minutes of musical storytelling. We first see Barnum as a young boy, broke and poor, who falls for the wealthy Charity, whose parents forbid the two from being together. He sends her letters while she's away at a private school, and takes a job at a railroad in order to make some money. A quick dissolve later, and Barnum is now a full-grown adult, walking up to the now adult Charity to propose to her, much to the disappointment of her parents. They sing a romantic ballad while dancing on the rooftop of their new home, and another dissolve later, they have the two daughters, and Barnum has just gotten fired from his desk job when the company he works for goes under.
But Barnum, being the constant wide-eyed dreamer that he is in this movie, has an idea. He opens up a museum of historical wax figures and stuffed wild animals, which fails to draw a crowd. Not wanting to give up, he decides to go in a different direction. He will turn his museum into a show that will celebrate all walks of life that the world usually shies away from. He searches out "Oddities" that he can put into his show, including a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and the pint-sized adult whom Barnum dubs Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). These people are naturally afraid about being in the show, as they think Barnum wants to exploit them. But, his charm wins them over. He wants to celebrate them, and to show the world how special they are. In the show, Barnum is dressed in a red impresario's coat and top hat, and leads a large cast of "Oddities" (there's a "giant" and a "dog boy" in the group, too) and circus performers in one of 11 rousing musical numbers featured in the film written by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the tunes for La La Land
, as well as the current Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen.
The musical sequences are definitely something to see, featuring some fine pinpoint choreography and a lot of spectacle. But, I also quickly realized something. The songs never feel like they're part of the story. They feel separated, like small individual music video sequences. As impressive as some of them have been staged or performed, they never quite add to the story.
A good example of this happens about halfway into the film, when Barnum does not allow the cast of his show to attend a party, because the guests are high society and he's afraid how they will respond to them. This leads to Lettie Lutz and the entire cast of Barnum's production to sing a stirring song called "This is Me
", where they sing about how they have been shunned all their lives, but will stand out from now on. The song is powerfully performed by the Tony-nominated Kela Settle, but it holds little dramatic weight, because the song has no influence on the plot. It's not connected to the story, and feels like a separate entity. Once the song is over, the movie moves on, as if it never happened. What is supposed to be a song about demanding respect and acceptance never quite gets off the ground, because the movie never quite finds a way to fit it into the narrative. And when it's over, no one ever mentions it again.
I feel a little bit cynical, as the movie clearly exists solely to entertain, and there are moments when I was caught under its spell. But, the plot would always send me crashing back down to Earth with its undercooked narrative. This is a movie that hints at plot developments, rather than fleshes them out. At one point, Barnum hires a young playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as a partner. Aside from a musical number where the two hammer out their partnership over some drinks in a lively choreographed number, the movie never explores their relationship, professional or personal. Also underdeveloped is a romantic subplot between Phillip and an African American trapeze artist (Zendaya). Yes, we know that their relationship is looked down upon by high society because their skin colors are mixed, but the movie never goes any deeper than that, nor does it give them any dialogue that tells us how they feel about each other. They do share a romantic song together, but after that, they spend most of their screentime simply making longing glances, and wondering why no one will accept their love.
There is also the introduction of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer with a remarkable voice that Barnum helps to make a star, and whom he seems to be infatuated with. Barnum sees her as his ticket to being known for more than just the circus, and perhaps appealing to an upscale crowd. But, his wife Charity is afraid that he might have more on his mind, as she expresses in song when her husband takes off on a tour with her. Again, the movie never really goes that deep into the relationships here, so we never feel the tension that we're supposed to. And when everything in Barnum's life falls apart as a result of a scandal that erupts while on tour, it again seems to be glossed over, and resolved in a matter of minutes. I know, this is a musical, and that we're supposed to be taken in by the magic of the production numbers. At times I even was. But I couldn't help but feel that the story was being shortchanged by the decision to cram more songs in.
I guess I wanted The Greatest Showman
to have a little bit more substance. Just because you have your characters breaking into song is not an excuse to gloss over, and ignore most of the narrative. This film left me with a sense of wonder, but I felt kind of empty at the same time. It was a strange experience that would lift me up from time to time, and disappoint me all at once. This is not the fault of the actors, director, choreographers or performers, who are indeed giving this their all. All this talent has simply been handed a script that it simply does not deserve. And anyone who knows the real story of P.T. Barnum will probably object to how he is depicted here, almost like an innocent child in an adult's body. Jackman is great in the role he's been given, but Barnum he is not.
I do admire this movie in a lot of ways, but it's too uneven for me to fully recommend. I really tried to get wrapped up in this one. I wanted to shut off the part of my brain that kept on telling me that the movie wasn't fully working. But, as it went on, that nagging little voice got louder and louder. If you are able to get fully behind this movie when you see it, more power to you. I kind of envy you, actually.