The Greatest Showman: not so great?

After the immense success of La La Land, it is no surprise that movie musicals are making a comeback. This year, the genre has climbed to even greater heights with The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, and Zac Efron. Jackman has supposedly been pushing this project for a few years now, and finally got the team to make it happen. The screenplay is by Bill Condon, who wrote for the film adaptations of both Chicago and Dreamgirls. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land acclaim also wrote songs for the film.

As the passion project of so many industry heavyweights, The Greatest Showman promised a spectacle. The film chronicles the journey of P.T. Barnum, the poor son of a tailor who pursues his dream to create the ‘Greatest Show in the World’ — what we know today as the circus. It is told as the classic rags-to-riches tale, with Hugh Jackman starring as the roguish yet charming Barnum. He is supported by a rather bland performance by Michelle Williams, who plays his doe-eyed and devoted wife, but fails to inspire emotion in her few and sappy numbers.

The real power of the story comes from the ensemble cast of Barnum’s “freaks”, an array of colourful characters whose fleeting screen time steals the show. They are led by Broadway veteran and Tony nominee Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady, whose stage-presence radiates through the screen. Though her heart-pounding performance in the track “This Is Me” had a few people in the theatre actually cheering, the strength of these kinds of performances make the film’s primary focus on Barnum’s family drama all the more frustrating. For a film about the invention of the circus, we see very little of it.

The stand-out performances of the film come from Zac Efron and Zendaya, who play star-crossed lovers in a segregated society — their duet (“Rewrite the Stars”) is a definite Oscar-bid, and certainly the highlight of the film. The relationship between these two secondary characters is by far the most developed, and thus the most compelling to watch. Zendaya’s performance in particular is riveting, and though this is only the Disney star’s second feature film, in her role here as the acrobat Anne Wheeler she proves herself as a triple-threat we are sure we will see a lot of in future.

Overall, however, the emotional impact of the film is somewhat lacking. Too much time is devoted to the side-story of Jenny Lind, the least interesting of Barnum’s acts. As a result, the pacing feels rushed, and the audience is not given much time to develop an attachment to any character except Barnum. But this becomes a problem in itself, as anyone who knows the real story of P.T. Barnum will find it impossible to feel sympathy for such a shady historical figure, despite the beaming charisma Jackman adds to his portrayal.

In fact, the film’s biggest enemy is its own history. It struggles to find the balance between whimsical fantasy and gritty fact, and thus flounders without roots. If it were to delve into the emotional reality of these historical figures, it would bump up against some nasty truths. P.T. Barnum was a conman, who promoted minstrel shows and exploited minorities for his own personal gain; he was certainly not the beaming philanthropist that Jackman’s portrayal suggests. However, if the movie had adhered strictly to the facts, it would have lost much of its appeal. After all, it would be difficult to enjoy a bright, bouncing musical about both human and animal rights violations.

The film definitely sacrifices substance for fun, and while some critics will call this a failure, I would suggest that we should not underestimate the value of pure entertainment. We can only expect a musical to deliver so much historical accuracy, and should instead indulge in its fantasy and accept that it is less a biopic than a Broadway show. This film is a treat for die-hard musical fans as the music is exceptional and the visuals are delightful, even if the story does not pack much of an emotional punch. But in the end, The Greatest Showman is a film that is just as easy to enjoy as it is to forget.

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