Who is “The Greatest Showman” you ask? Why, it’s P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a real life figure who is thought of having a complicated legacy at best (a good example of this is how he was a staunch critic of slavery, but also heavily utilized blackface in his entertainment programs) and has now been recontextualized for the American musical “The Greatest Showman” as being a staunch advocate for the downtrodden and the oppressed by creating a haven for them through the circus. This includes Zendaya as a trapeze artist and a bearded lady named Letti played by Keala Settle. How does he advocate for such individuals?
This sort of inspirational rags-to-riches plot of outcasts banding together is heavily different from the reality of who Barnum was, and while it’s hard to entirely shake off the icky feeling of how the movie is reconfiguring a troubling figure from the past into a heroic individual (isn’t this how Christopher Columbus became such an untouchable historical icon for so long?), at least the heightened format of a musical means that it mostly feels like just another element of “The Greatest Showman” embracing the stylized tendencies baked into the very core of musical storytelling. ThisMichael Gracey Helmed project fully embraces the world of musicals and what unique things they can accomplish, complete with elaborate dance numbers, grandiose sets and costumes and songs that are as big as any big top.
Even better than its apparent love for musicals is how it actually has a strong roster of tunes at its disposal penned by the duo Pasek and Paul, of “La La Land” fame. Aside from an unmemorable Adele-inspired track sung by a character played by Rebecca Ferguson, the rest of the songs are thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to an infectious energy in these musical numbers that stems heavily from the inspired lyrics. The best songs have to be “The Other Side,” a tavern-set ditty wherein Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron get to dance their way through a Gene Kelly inspired song where lyrics get tossed out in entertaining rapid-fire fashion, and especially a showstopper empowerment anthem entitled “This Is Me” that dares anyone not to get up and feel inspired. “The Greatest Showman” knows how to make a lively and fun musical number, which is why it’s shocking that notable stretches of the story — especially in the extremely troubled second half of the film where P.T. Barnum becomes heavily enamored with the world of high society — go by without someone breaking into song.
When the music goes away, what’s left in “The Greatest Showman?” Well, in the aforementioned second half of the plot, you basically get a so-so biopic drama that doesn’t really give any of its actors a chance to utilize their best assets. Since we spend so much time with Barnum away on the road touring, that means the best characters in the movie (the various circus performers and an endearing writer played by Zac Efron) are shunted to the background at best and more often than not, entirely off-screen.
The characters themselves, especially P.T. Barnum, aren’t strong enough to help make the weakly thought out drama all that engaging as I kept waiting for the fun musical numbers to come back. Also hindering the film is how it treats the performers in Barnum’s circus, many of whom never get fleshed out as people, while two of the most notable African-American characters (played by Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in the story seem to just show up on-screen so they can be demonized by not nice white characters in order to show how woke the nice characters are. For a movie whose entire core theme is about humanizing the downtrodden, “The Greatest Showman” does have a problem with frequently only using the oppressed as props instead of people. On the other hand, one reason “This Is Me” works so well is because it’s such a successful realization of lending a voice and perspective to the oppressed. These circus performers don’t belt out this tune to Barnum, they sing it to themselves as both strangers and people they trust shut them out and ignore them. That’s why that particular musical number resonates so deeply.
Thankfully, there’s a whole bunch of highly enjoyable musical numbers (the tunes in this thing have been stuck in my head for days!) and some actors turning in fun work here to ensure your visit with “The Greatest Showman” is at least better than the traumatic visit to the circus I had at a young age.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com