Overview: A musical loosely based on the rise of P.T. Barnum shows the birth of the circus and his vision of true spectacle; 20th Century Fox; Rated PG; 105 minutes.
Wasted Opportunities: As a genre, the musical has, at different points in cinema history, been both maligned and celebrated. The advantage of the musical as an art form is that music is easily tied to emotion. For this reason, a moment that could be silly or over the top may fit perfectly into music and lyrics. Done correctly, musicals can invoke intense feeling and emotional moments can be seared into the memory of the audience. However, this is always a tentative balance, a daredevil act in itself. It is quite easy to tip over into eye-rolling silliness. Sadly, The Greatest Showman never had a hope of walking that tight rope. In terms of emotional connection and characters to care about, The Greatest Showman is an abject failure.
The real selling point of the film lies in its star, Hugh Jackman. He is one of the few actors to cross over effectively in blockbuster properties and musicals. And none of the blame of this movie’s missteps should be placed at his feet. He is admirably excited through material that is miles beneath his talent. Jackman gives it his all, like the star he is, even if the stage is practically crumbling beneath him. He is saddled with a role that has little of the gray area that P.T. Barnum inhabited throughout his life. Overall, this is a waste of a talented cast. Zac Efron, though wildly miscast as a member of the upper crust, takes advantage of his natural talents and takes part in both of the film’s most watchable sequences. Yes, there are only two. His palpable chemistry with Zendaya lights up the screen in moments. It is unfortunate that these characters are so wildly underwritten that it becomes difficult to care whether or not they end up together. Besides Zendaya, the other notable actresses flounder in largely pointless and predictable roles. Michelle Williams, as Barnum’s wife Charity, plays the ultra-supportive wife until that moment that everyone knows is coming. The other woman, singer Jenny Lind, portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson, is just another in a long line of performances from her in which she is not given an opportunity to show her presence and charisma. The supporting cast of Barnum’s Oddities perform well, but with few standout moments.
Musical Memories, or Lack Thereof: And now we come to the film’s largest issue. The Greatest Showman is a musical, with arguably one high quality song and two decent dance numbers. This will lead even those of us who enjoy musicals to want to turn away from the screen. The most memorable number, “The Other Side,” allows Jackman and Efron to perform energetically, and one cannot help but be whisked away in the moment. If only the rest of the film was half as much fun! The remainder of the original songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land fame, tries desperately hard to be memorable. Unfortunately, the shoehorning of numerous reprises early in the film and blatant callbacks force them to fall flat on their faces. None of the songs are actively bad, it’s just a shame that I can’t remember any of them. The ham-fisted themes of togetherness and acceptance do not help matters, either. Pasek and Paul clearly understand the structure of musicals, but have forgotten to make it fun for the rest of us.
Gorgeous Visuals Abound: There is some mild fun to be had, however. Efron and Zendaya’s silks inspired number, “Rewrite the Stars,” is memorable visually, if not musically. The moments they share tied to a rope almost make you forget about the lack of characterization from which they both suffer. And director Michael Gracey, in his debut, shows a gift for visual flair. Clearly influenced by the kinetic energy of directors like Baz Luhrmann, Gracey quickly dives in to the flamboyant nature of the circus, and never allows the audience to be truly bored. But because of the lack of substance, these images, striking as they may be, drift from the mind as quickly as they arrived. Speaking of visuals, the true star of the film is Ellen Mirojnick, who designed the costumes. She takes full advantage of the freedom afforded by the musical, which suspends disbelief more than most films. Mirojnick dresses Jackman in a different gorgeous suit in just about every scene, as well as having a specific style based on class, which serves to separate Barnum from his circus family quite effectively.
After last year’s successes on both stage and screen, there is a possibility for the return of original musical to Hollywood. But there are only so many opportunities for this style of entertainment, so they must be wasted. And The Greatest Showman is just that: a waste. Of time, energy, money, and talent.
Overall:. The Greatest Showman boasts a talented cast, sumptuous visuals, and exquisite costuming. Frustratingly, all of these ingredients are undercut by mediocre music, underwritten characters, and a predictable plot.