Coming off of the success of La La Land last year, the lyricists on the film were quickly picked up by 20th Century Fox and Hugh Jackman to punch up another musical, The Greatest Showman. Loosely based off of P.T. Barnum (emphasis on loosely), The Greatest Showman hopes to provide enough magic and charm to carry everyone through the holiday season. The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Michael Gracey
Written By: Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
After losing his job during the holiday season, P.T. Barnum (Jackman) is down on his luck and without a foreseeable way to fix his situation. But after consoling with his wife (Williams) and children, Barnum conjures up an idea that could change the face of entertainment by creating a circus full of performers. He quickly begins to assemble a group of so-called “freaks,” making the notion that everyone is special as the core point of his show.
As Barnum’s show grows in popularity, however, he must handle more and more backlash from people that don’t understand his passion.
La La Land‘s influence on the production of The Greatest Showman cannot be more prevalent. Naturally, some of the same lyricists are involved, but the movie might not have been made in its current form otherwise.
The project was first announced in 2009 with Jackman tied to play the lead role ever since. In fact, the movie has been quite the passion project for Jackman. But, the film was put on the back burner for quite some time in part due to fear that an original musical would not perform well at the box office.
Eventually, The Greatest Showman started to get going, casting both Zac Efron and Michelle Williams in the summer of 2016. Although rehearsals began for the movie in October of that same year, principal photography didn’t start until late November, right around when La La Land was reaching the height of its buzz in preparation for awards season.
Obviously, The Greatest Showman was full steam ahead before La La Land became the break out Oscar contender among casual movie fans, but there’s certainly something to say about putting a production company at ease at the onset of filming a project with which they were nervous. Fox has pushed the film hard in marketing, showing that they now have the confidence that an original musical can succeed at the box office.
Hugh Jackman and Company Sing Their Hearts Out
With every scene, you can tell that Jackman has wanted to make this film for quite some time. He dives into every scene head-on, thrusting his Tony award winning skills into some impeccable stunts and musical numbers. The Greatest Showman begins with a bang, forcing you into a bright, colorful, and magical world that is truly awe-inspiring.
Obviously, this movie is best when the musical tunes begin, shifting between pop, fusion jazz, and shout choir beats. The Greatest Showman has a certain sincerity to it that breaths pure magic into its songs akin to a classic Disney tale. Actors jump into each others arms, fly through the air, and embrace each other with the kindest of hearts. This energy is utterly fantastic, and it’ll win over a ton of audience members because of it.
The True Story Vs. The Greatest Showman
But, when the real life P.T. Barnum has a legacy of being a con-artist, this overally sentimental brilliance turns to mush. There’s a notion of “smoothing the edges” whenever telling the story of historic figure, but The Greatest Showman goes much further, ditching most of the man’s story for a more family-friendly feature film.
In fact, the closest that The Greatest Showman comes to real life events is that P.T. Barnum once ran a circus. Characters are fabricated out of thin air in order to paint a different picture of Barnum. It appears that the creative team (mainly Jackman since this movie is a major passion project) wanted to make a musical and felt that a circus performer was a good vessel to do so without thinking of the real life figure.
To put things in perspective, Barnum is credited with saying that his personal goal was “to put money in his own coffers.” He built up such a reputation that people have attributed the saying “there’s a sucker born every minute” to him. There’s a truly fascinating story to tell about Barnum, but I can’t say that The Greatest Showman is it.
Forgetting History Can be Forgotten, But Does the Story Work as Presented?
To answer the above question: no.
There’s plenty of great historically inaccurate films out there. Take Gladiator or Braveheart as examples. If The Greatest Showman was truly a great film, I’d still be singing its praises despite its blatant disregard for the real P.T. Barnum. But, the film really struggles to find any narrative heft whatsoever.
There’s a simple and incredibly effective story to tell here about unique people becoming accepted by society and feeling comfortable in their own skin. Whenever The Greatest Showman focuses on this element of the story, it really works. However, the film diverts its attention to a meandering storyline with Jackman’s Barnum that completely undercuts the heart of the film’s underdog story. At its core, its even somewhat mean-spirited. Barnum himself disregards his showmen even to the point of derision. Luckily, Jackman is so charismatic and charming that many audience members may not pick up on it.
Keeping the focus on Barnum keeps some of the other stories underserved, most notably the budding romance between Zac Efron and Zendaya’s characters. The Greatest Showman tries to weave in discussions of race and class relations as well, but nothing ever pays off since a lot of fluff gets a ton of screen time.
The Greatest Showman dazzles with its splendid music and stunts, creating a moviegoing aftermosphere that will sweep many viewers off their feet into a state of pure bliss. But, when you peel back the film’s glossy exterior, it’s clear that there isn’t much of a story to whet the appetite of those that desire a little more from a movie than a few catchy tunes. The Greatest Showman waffles back and forth in its story structure, creating an experience that is perplexing to say the least when considering P.T. Barnum’s true colors.
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