- Product Rating -

The Greatest Showman

| December 28, 2017

I used to wonder if I didn’t like musicals, but then I realized that I just see so many musicals that aren’t good. The Greatest Showman is something that can, in theory, work well, but it’s plagued by a script that isn’t sure of its scope and direction that detracts from its many pieces instead of bringing them all together. There’s palpable energy at different moments here, but that energy is often times unfocused. While most of the actors demonstrate an affection towards the material, the movie as a whole doesn’t know how to convey that. What is said through dialogue to be a “celebration of humanity” lacks just that, using flare instead.

A revisionist take on the then-soon-to-be-famous and now-infamous Barnum and Bailey Circus, The Greatest Showman follows P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman as an adult, Ellis Rubin as a child), who grew up in poverty with his father Philo (Will Swenson) and best friend Charity (Michelle Williams as an adult, Skylar Dunn as a child). As the two keep in touch as they grow up, they eventually get married, living in a modest New York apartment, and despite her satisfaction with their lives, he yearns for more. Forming a circus act, he quickly amasses a crew to perform alongside him, speeding up both their commercial success and derision from the community while their ambitions remain largely unscathed.

The Greatest Showman is light on its feet in a manufactured sort of way. It’s ironic, really, given the lower-class background of its protagonist and his artistic accomplices. While the film is a passion project for Jackman—and it shows with how much energy he bleeds in each scene—it doesn’t seem to have as much love behind the scenes on the parts of director Michael Gracey, who here makes his feature debut, and screenwriters Jenny Bicks (What a Girl Wants) and Bill Condon (who directed this year’s Beauty and the Beast). In fact, The Greatest Showman shares a lot of issues with Condon’s last project, with too many peripheral characters and not enough sustained focus to bring its subplots to fruition. The script’s pacing is poor, rushing the development of aspects of Barnum’s show and muddying the progression of the plot overall. Many sequences in the first half are rushed, the film instead giving more time to overproduced musical numbers, some of which feel more plastic than organic.

As a musical, The Greatest Showman is frustratingly inconsistent when it isn’t one-note. The songs, penned by La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are serviceable and operate on a generally consistent level, but the production values for each song vary greatly. Some are orchestral and sweeping (and rightfully so), while some have incident sound mixing and some synthesizers and slight autotune. All of the numbers sit in one of two schools of choreography: one with the performers walking towards the camera and sometimes jutting out a leg; and one with the performers spinning and shimmying while the camera revolves around them. There isn’t much variety here, and the directorial choices from Gracey don’t augment the themes of the songs.

Thankfully, there are moments in which The Greatest Showman shines a bit. Supporting players such as Zendaya and Keala Settle breathe some charisma into their scenes, and as stated before, Jackman’s efforts are authentic and infectious to varying degrees. Surrounding this, though, isn’t much that plays as truthful, with Bicks and Condon’s writing sanitizing the true story and not giving enough attention to what the movie is really trying to be about: the disenfranchised and the exiled from society. The Greatest Showman isn’t an inspirational story about a band of misfits, and it plays it all so safe. Some every moment that was okay, three had me as disinterested as Williams looked onscreen. But hey, maybe I’m really just that stuffy old critic that devalues the circus’s work throughout the film.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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