I’ve always unashamedly loved big, showy musicals, so I really wanted to love The Greatest Showman. It had all the makings of one – original songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh off La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, a cast of established singers including Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendya, and a circus setting for extravagant dance sequences and flashy visuals. At times I could even feel it winning me over, but ultimately director Michael Gracey’s attempts to create an inspiring story about truth and integrity can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that The Greatest Showman is centred around a horrible man.
Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the man responsible for founding the Barnum and Bailey circus. Throughout the film Barnum is presented as an American hero, with a rags-to-riches style story as he overcomes all expectations and criticism to find success and fame. Yet even Jackman’s nice-guy persona can’t hide the fact that every action Barnum undertakes within the story is selfish, manipulative, impulsive, and arrogant. Having nearly every other character praise him as a genius comes across as shameless shilling, especially when he is easily forgiven for prior slights, and one of his few ‘redemptive’ acts is so overblown and cinematic that it doesn’t so much stretch credibility as completely snap it. It’s a particularly baffling narrative decision given that audiences have demonstrated time and time again that we love a good story about the charming conman: From Speilberg’s Catch Me If You Can about real-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. to the animated Nick Wilde in Disney’s Zootopia, it’s always fun to watch an intelligent character outsmart those they come up against with a bit of style and panache. If they had embraced that aspect of Barnum’s character The Greatest Showman would be a completely different and possibly better film, but instead Jackman utilises every winning grin and cheeky wink at his disposable to try and convince us that Barnum is a true innovator chasing his goals. By having him repeatedly face off against a dour critic (Paul Sparks) who just can’t appreciate entertainment for entertainment’s sake it feels as though Michael Gracey is just dismissing any criticism of Barnum, and accusing anyone who doesn’t like The Greatest Showman of being snobbish.
Maybe I am just a snob, because on a technical level The Greatest Showman is a marvel. The production values are the highest and most extravagant for a cinematic musical since Moulin Rogue, and scenes within the circus perfectly capture that wonder and glamour Barnum’s shows were famous for. Ashley Allen’s choreography is precise and finely-tuned, as well as taking advantage of the cinematic medium in a way that many musical films don’t by having dance sequences blend in and out of different settings or simply involving stunts that couldn’t be replicated on stage. A duet between Zendaya and Zac Efron’s characters as they soar through the air on a trapeze while harmonizing was a beautiful, remarkable moment that demonstrated the potential Greatest Showman failed to maintain. Gracey wisely casts actors known for their singing abilities as well as their acting, with Efron embracing his musical background after trying to distance himself from the High School Musical franchise and Jackman displaying all of his considerable talents to suggest that he’s more worthy of the title ‘Greatest Showman’ than Barnum. Zendaya’s talent and screen-presence proves she’s due for leading film roles in the near future, and as the bearded lady Keala Settle steals every scene with her belting singing voice.
Everything works so well on paper, but when it’s all put together it ends up feeling overwhelming and artificial. Nowhere is this the case more than Pasek and Paul’s musical numbers. Individually they all have catchy melodies, clever lyrics, and immaculate production, but when they come one after another it feels like they’re fighting for attention. It was as though every song was trying to be the showstopper as the cast confidently sing out life-affirming messages to the audience, and too often the musical numbers are met with thunderous applause and standing ovations within the film itself. It stinks of a director telling the viewer how they’re meant to be feeling, but songs about truth and honesty fall flat when the main character is a serial liar.
Gracey and Jackman clearly knew they wanted to make an homage to Golden Age Hollywood musicals with The Greatest Showman, but the actual story of P.T. Barnum never seems to fit that genre so the lavish production just feels forced. It’s a step beyond style over substance – it winds up feeling as though the style of the film is in direct conflict with the actual substance of the story.