"No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else."
Are musicals making a comeback? I understand that they’re not at the abundance at which they once were, but I feel like the movie musical has regained a certain level or marketability in the wake of a certain film released in 2016. It seems that musical numbers aren’t just regarded as an obligatory part of a Disney, they can be pushed as part of a film’s main appeal. Or at least, one hit song from the film can be pushed at the main appeal in the hopes that everyone will remember it come awards season.
When PT Banum (Hugh Jackman) is fired from his job as a lowly clerk, he tries to find new ventures to support his wife (Michelle Williams) and family. Gathering an assortment of outcasts and roadside attractions, he forms a circus to draw in crowds. Having started from nothing Barnum created a spectacle that would garner worldwide attention and form the origins of show business as we know it.
There’s artistic liberties, then there’s bending the truth, then there’s ‘The Greatest Showman’. Opinions aside, there isn’t really much debate over the idea that PT Barnum was actually a con-artist who exploited his acts as often as he manipulated audiences into seeing them. Put it this way, a man who has reverence for his audience and performers doesn’t coin the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be a movie about him (in fact a more true to life retelling would probably be infinitely more interesting than this movie), but to paint him as the hero of a rags to riches tale that championed the downtrodden is a little inaccurate to say the least.
But ethics aside, ‘The Greatest Showman’ still doesn’t redeem itself by way of virtue. Looking at this purely as a cinematic musical, it still falls a little flat. It attempt to tell a grandiose story of inspiration but never endears us to the main characters beyond the most manipulative and cheap tactics. The characters are presented to us but we never get any insight into their motives or any development that feels earned. The characters change but there’s no nuance to that progression and worse still is that each of those arcs are the most generic schmaltz you can imagine. They seem to change when the script demands them to rather than in a way that feels natural to the flow of the narrative.
None of this is to say that ‘The Greatest Showman’ isn’t uplifting at times, in fact it’s not the predictability of the movie that drags it down but rather its repetitiveness. The movie is the directorial debut of Michael Gracey and it shows. The song sequences, while impressive in their choreography and production design, don’t really have any visual dynamic to them. They’re all filmed with sweeping camera movements that showcase the better aspects of the film’s production, but inevitably feel flat and awkward when they drag on at the same angle and in the same style for a few too many minutes.
The story and sequences are derivative of one another and the narrative seems to take several detours only to end up at the exact same conclusion as they would if they had cut out entire sequences. The golden rule of musicals is as follows, if a music number isn’t advancing the plot or characters then it shouldn’t be there. The songs that work best within ‘The Greatest Showman’ are the ones that do just that, but a frustrating amount of them feel as if they’re added purely to stall for time. You could remove most of the songs in this film and the plot would play out in the same way. What makes it worse is that a few of those songs not only serve the exact same purpose, but are executed in the exact same style. There are three songs between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron that involve the former throwing props to the latter to prove a point.
I can at least praise the performances within ‘The Greatest Showman’ because while the actors could use more to work with on a dramatic front, there work is what makes it seem serviceable at best. During the musical numbers their talents really shine. Jackman makes for a charismatic leading man that captures the idea that Barnum could easily enchant his audiences with his sheer showmanship. Efron and Zenendaya share enough on screen chemisty that their romantic subplot feels at least believable if not highly formulaic (I’m fairly convinced they would have included a “running to the airport to declare love” scene if they hadn’t remembered the period the movie is supposed to take place in at the last minute). And Michelle Williams is…there, kind of. Yeah they really wasted her talent.
Predictable and disingenuous, ‘The Greatest Showman’ is a decent spectacle but an empty one at that.