Director: Michael Gracey
Screenplay: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
Runtime: 105 Minutes
P. T. Barnum was a politician, philanthropist and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. He established "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome," a travelling circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks", which adopted many names over the years.
This should all count for something that could justify inspection and dramatic adaptation, even as an elaborately staged musical in keeping with the showbiz nature of its setting, but the case of The Greatest Showman feels entirely misjudged when applied to a figure who supposedly coined the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute."
Although drawing much attention and ridicule toward the macabre and outcasts of society labelled as freaks, he was very much capitalising off of the voyeuristic nature off allowing people to stare at individuals with disfigurements, ailments or abnormalities (real or elaborated) for the sake of profit. But for a film where its narrative is so focused on the nature of how this Willy Wonka style gentleman brought such people together and found a use and home for them, the discourse between what the film is trying to say and what it is actually presenting is a flummoxing and embarrassing malfunction of intention on many counts.
For starters, while Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life playing the lead role (a passion project of his he’s been trying to get off the ground since 2009) – and it’s a damn fine performance to boot – he and the collective team of writers and creatives have utterly failed to wrap their heads around the real-life figure and what he represented.
Creative licence is one thing, rewriting the character as a saviour figure for the disenfranchised, but the film still has to address that his objective was profit first and foremost. The blunt way in which the film handles this in its mad first act dash toward the establishment of the circus leaves no room for any characterisation on behalf of the circus members. They’re all empty shells no matter how much the film tries to say it’s about them, it’s always focused on Barnum and his increasingly erratic behaviour and sense of entitlement. Cast in any other light he might be an antagonist or anti-hero at best, but here a glorified redeemer without justification.
This is to say nothing of the way that characters and real-life figures such as Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and even his wife Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) are short-changed in development as forced twists and turns in the latter half contrive for a forced narrative arc where Barnum has to learn what he was missing all along while chasing after the prestige of upper-class status, as opposed to his real nature as a puffed up provocateur. It’s a shame because most of the performances are good, including that of Zac Efron in his first musical feature since his High School Musical days, and another charismatic turn from Zendaya.
The films attempt at smacking away commentary come and go in the form of theatre critic Paul Sparks as James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Bennett continuously picks holes in the logic and disturbing worldview that Barnum occupies, whereupon he is laughed off as a buzz kill for voicing perfectly reasonable assessments of Barnum’s increasingly bloated status and esteem.
All of this is before getting to its position as a musical, which is at sporadic moments almost a saving grace. First time director Michael Gracey – with credit to James Mangold – handles the singing and dancing scenes in a few of the numbers rather well, from an engagingly visual opening montage sequence to a terrific number in a bar between Efron and Jackman. But the majority of the numbers, including the main feature song This Is Me which is supposed to be at the heart of the film, are visually unimaginative and thrown away. The songs themselves are a mixed bag of nice but forgettable pop light numbers and lame empty proclamations of statement or emotion.
The most damning statement to make of The Greatest Showman is that behind all of the flash and spectacle – never mind the egregious misrepresentation of the central figure – it’s an incredibly empty, shallow and bloated piece of junk that parades as inspirational and uplifting but leaves nothing in the way of genuine emotion, insight or even a structurally sound or compelling story.