The Greatest Showman Movie Review
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Family. Passion. Love. Dreams. Greed. And Music. Oh the sweet music. The Greatest Showman has it all.
Written by Broadway-to-screen maestro Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Chicago) with music by the ever-so-hot duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), The Greatest Showman is this holiday’s feel good movie that will have moviegoers tapping along to many of the film’s colorful choreographed numbers.
First-time director Michael Gracey, channeling Baz Luhrmann, retells the rags to riches story of P.T. Barnum, the imaginative disruptor and visionary who later founded the most famous circus on the planet. Opening and closing with the rousing “The Greatest Show,” Gracey introduces a poor Barnum who knows that he is destined for much more than his dad, a tailor catering to the rich. As a 12-year-old Barnum (Ellis Rubin but sung by Ziv Zaifman) sings to his future bride Charity in “A Million Dreams”
‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make
After Barnum’s father passes away, he is left to fend for himself and it is here where we see the hustler that lives within Barnum. Barnum grows up to marry Charity (Michelle Williams) who bores them two children, but he continues to struggle financially, failing at job after job after job until he gets the idea to open a museum of inanimate curiosities. Like many jobs before it, this too fails until his two young girls give him the idea to include living things like unicorns and mermaids. And so it is with that motivation that we see the beginning of what would one day become the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Barnum stocks the museum with “peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful, curious and strange” and invents characters such as Dog Man, the Irish Giant, the Bearded Lady, and many more larger-than-life (and mostly fake) characters. It is with the introduction of the circus that Gracey highlights the kindness and crass behavior that Barnum had towards people. While recruiting Charles Stratton, a dwarf, to play General Tomb Thumb, Stratton tells Barnum that “they will laugh at me” to which Barnum replies, “they’re laughing at you anyway, at least you will get paid”. Alternatively, we get to see Barnum as a man who considers each of his performers “extraordinary, unique, and beautiful”; Jackman, in interviews, has described him as a man who recognized that “what makes you different makes you special” and believed you should “celebrate who you are.”
Every movie has antagonists and Gracey uses Barnum’s father-in-law and a newspaper critic as adversaries; however, like many entrepreneurs, Barnum’s worst enemy might be himself as he continues to want more and more for his family despite giving them more luxuries than they could probably spend in a lifetime. Watching Jackman as a man nearly taken over by greed only to realize the importance of family is captivating.
Jackman is joined by many equally strong performances, but perhaps none better than Zendaya in a breakout role as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, Broadway performer Keala Settle as The Bearded Lady, and a small but extremely powerful performance by Rebecca Ferguson as English opera star Jenny Lind. The Voice contestant Loren Allred also deserves special mention for her vocal performance for Lind with the goosebumps-worthy “Never Enough.”
The Greatest Showman is not without its faults. Condon’s storyline drags on at times making the film appear longer than its 105 minute running time, Barnum’s strife with wife Charity’s father feels contrived, and Jackman’s baritone is often drowned out under the powerful instrumentals. There is also very little truth to much of the story so don’t leave the theatre thinking this is a realistic biopic. And, while Gracey does attempt to highlight the dislike and discontent for Barnum through the many protestors outside his museum and a newspaper critic that appears to be out to get Barnum, he fails to show the lows that Barnum resorted to to gain notoriety, including purchasing a slave that he claimed to be the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Even with these criticisms, there are only a handful of movies that will stay with you as long as this one (with much credit owed to the music).
If you’re looking for a film for the whole family this holiday season, look no further than this one. And, if Broadway is smart, they will take what Condon, Pasek, Paul, Gracey, and Jackman have done and build upon it for a starring role in Times Square. I’m ready for an encore already!