There’s a modern pop feel with this musical, which hardly dresses the part. The Greatest Showman is riddled with classic set design circa 1800s Connecticut. I was surprised to hear how much the musical numbers clashed with our characters, who attempted to maintain the illusion of the olden times. Heck, there’s even an entire interracial romance subplot to highlight the racism in these times. I wonder why all this effort to place us in a certain space to then use music that never fits what’s on-screen.
Michael Gracey is a young director, making his debut with The Greatest Showman (the only other film listed on his iMDB is Naruto). I appreciated his ambition to think outside the circus, but did he have to use jumpy, modern-sounding tunes to welcome in a wider audience? Opening with the main theme “The Greatest Show,” Hugh Jackman‘s P.T. Barnum is seen at what seems to be the height of his career. He’s confident, flashy and then the film cuts back to reality, and we see an empty crowd. We’re then taken to Barum’s childhood and how he came to be one of the greatest ringmasters in history, surrounded by talent that would’ve otherwise been written off as too strange for entertainment.
The expeditious pace at which this film moves from young Barum to adult Barum is jarring. I never took time to understand his childhood other than he comes from a poor family. The film never peers into his imagination outside of a single scene where he crafts a makeshift item for the daughter of a wealthy family and his eventual wife, young Charity Barnum (Skylar Dunn). In the blink of an eye we see his transition from son to orphan, who resorts to stealing bread in order to eat. This entire sequence has a generic feeling that includes another very abrupt jump in time to his reunion with the girl from his childhood. Before we know it, P.T. and Charity (Michelle Williams) now have two children. At this point, the film does its best to continue calling back to the opening number with three separate renditions: happy “The Greatest Show,” sad “The Greatest Show” and reflective “The Greatest Show.” Yet, I’m stuck in a confused state wondering when this film will start to make me feel any emotion.
I don’t believe all the attempts at a modern musical stuck in the 1800s are terrible, however. Keala Settle, who plays facial-haired woman Lettie Lutz, performs the best number in the film that drives home the theme of The Greatest Showman: it’s OK to be different. Quite frankly, the entire film hammered into my head that it’s OK to be different, including one montage including Barnum and how he finds his cast of characters for the circus.
Jackman is incredibly likable and his work in Les Misérables showed me he can thrive in a musical. His likability is no different here, as he remains as charming as ever. When it comes to the singing in Greatest Showman, however, I was never sold on his natural ability to take center stage. His acting in-between numbers carries even the weakest of actors on the billing (i.e. Zendaya), but I just couldn’t believe in his performances.
There’s a turning point in Barnum’s career outlook when he finds himself struggling to appeal to the elite tier of Connecticut — and an underlying theme of him striving to prove his in-laws wrong. Enter Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a high-brow member of society that has an inheritance waiting for him. The kid’s got it all, and Barnum knows he must tap Carlyle as a parter to advance his show. Somehow, Carlyle is convinced and willing to risk it all.
Zac Efron is removed from his typecast days of the High School Musical series, and he’s no longer censoring himself as seen in Neighbors and Baywatch. This made his appearance interesting in this film. He’s still got the natural showman touch as he gracefully weaves across the circus’ sandpit. Nothing is inherently wrong with his character until the unconvincing relationship blossoms between him and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Wheeler and her sibling are trapeze artists, and the film doesn’t shy away from the moments where they experience racism. Audiences hurl hateful speech towards them, Carlyle’s parents disapprove of their son’s interracial relationship and even Carlyle himself makes sure to try to play nice with the white folk. Time and time again, however, I find myself not convinced that they’re falling in love. The film has to tell me that they’re in love by putting Carlyle in a life-threatening situation and having Wheeler by his bedside.
The film begins to feel like an hour and 45 minutes once the third act begins and the education of Barnum’s plight is complete. In The Greatest Showman, the film chooses to ignore one of the bigger moments in Barnum’s life — his kiss-caught-on-camera with the elegant Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) — and, again, hastily prance toward the finish line. Nothing is able to breathe and the film is worse for it.
Although, amid the head-scratching moments and uninteresting elements, I found myself not completely hating this one. Maybe it’s due to Jackman’s likability, and maybe it’s due to a couple standout moments — including the first number shared by Efron and Jackman. There’s a bit of enjoyment found between the cracks, which saves the film from total catastrophe. I just don’t think The Greatest Showman is a hit and, once you exit the theater and head back into reality, leaves little to be desired.
I was treated to an advanced screening (full of free popcorn!) thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing and 20th Century Fox. ❤
The Greatest Showman is rated PG, runs 1 hour and 45 minutes and hits the nearest circus on Dec. 20, 2017.