Based on the life of circus creator P.T Barnum (Hugh Jackman), The Greatest Showman is the story of how Barnum went from being laid off from yet another job, to finding a way to make his dreams come true and create an American institution.
A passion project for Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman is not the first film or musical to focus on P.T. Barnum, but although the film brings in the lyricists from La La Land, is shot by Seamus McGarvey and boasts an impressive cast, there is very little under the shiny surface to draw audiences in.
The cast features Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Paul Sparks and Keala Settle, and each of them bring something to the film, but some of them – particularly Michelle Williams – feel as though they are miscast in this bright and shiny film. It is clear that Hugh Jackman is having the time of his life dancing and singing his way through this shiny and superficial film, but he feels as though he is not quite right for the role, and is certainly too old. Michelle Williams feels as though she is a distraction to the film and draws focus, as does Rebecca Ferguson, who is usually a joy to watch on screen. Zac Efron, Zendaya and Keala Settle are well cast in their roles and bring a sparkle to the film, but this is scattered to thinly throughout the film.
Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s screenplay is utterly superficial; the first act feels as though it is setting up something that could be truly special, but this quickly dissolves in the face of forced drama and emotional payoffs given to characters that have not earned them. As well as this, the romantic relationships between the characters seem to just appear, with no development or build up at all; in fact, this is a complaint that could be levied at the entire film, which is paced so quickly as to not allow any character development at all. Elsewhere, the film makes a big deal about celebrating those who are different, but utterly sidelines the so-called freaks in the story, only giving them the briefest of moments for their denouement before moving on. This, coupled with the fact that the film is so clearly ignoring the less pretty aspects of P.T Barnum’s life story make The Greatest Showman feel as though it is skimming the admittedly pretty surface.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s deliberately anachronistic songs feel as though they were rejected by big music stars – although Kesha’s cover of ‘This is Me’ is admittedly great – and are utterly forgettable. In fact the songs feel as though they are a cynical distraction and a cheap way of inserting emotion into a film that is devoid of heart. The dancing and performance is exhilarating, however, and it is clear that Zendaya is having fun in her spectacular trapeze routine.
As director, first timer Michael Gracey seems to have truly struggled with what little story there is. The songs work fine, the deliberately anachronistic style allows the songs to work almost as self contained music videos, but when characters need time to develop and change, the film is already moving on. This means that characters who need emotional redemption never get it, and the conflict seems to come out of nowhere.
In all, The Greatest Showman could have been a stirring, exhilarating and charming musical about allowing the strange to shine, and treating everyone with respect while making something beautiful, but instead it is a big shiny nothing. There are some lovely moments throughout the film, but the whole affair feels like one of P.T Barnum’s famous hoaxes; showy and bright, but ultimately false and unsatisfying.