‘The Greatest Showman’ And His Limited Acts (Movie Review)

By all accounts, I would be happy to lavish praise on The Greatest Showman, a musical passion project for Hugh Jackman. He may not have written or produced the film, but Jackman is a Tony Award-winning song and dance man at heart, and he’s been attached to this movie since 2009. If anything, The Greatest Showman certainly wants to celebrate Jackman as well. He’s presented as the best and most well-meaning person out there, with only minor drama coming to set him back now and again. This is precisely the problem, as The Greatest Showman is not without razzle-dazzle, but the greater depth found in truly worthwhile Broadway musicals is absent here.

Jackman stars as famed American showman P.T. Barnum, but rather than work as an adaptation of the Broadway musical Barnum, this film constructs its own take on the man’s legacy. Following an extended prologue sealing the romantic fate between Barnum and his eventual wife Charity (Michelle Williams), we follow Barnum’s journey to become someone important. After striking out with a museum devoted to obscure oddities, he begins bringing together various people of interest, including a dwarf, a giant, and a bearded lady. While looked down on by the wealthy aristocrats, Barnum’s show becomes a popular success that eventually courts more talent, such as Zac Efron and Rebecca Ferguson as famed performers, in addition to further controversy.

From a musical perspective, there is a lot to like when the film isn’t focused on character work and story. Settling in for elaborately choreographed numbers that feel like Baz Luhrmann-lite attempts, it is the songs with lyrics by Pasek and Paul (of La La Land fame) who have come in with some solid tunes such as “The Greatest Show,” “Come Alive,” and “This Is Me.” There is fun, life and meaning to these numbers, especially as one opens the film with all the energy you could want for a movie about a circus, while another hits at the film’s clearest message. It’s also worth noting the duets “The Other Side” and “Rewrite the Stars,” only because the film gets a lot more out of those moments between characters in the context of the story than it does otherwise.

This also speaks to the relative niceness shared by this cast. Without outright villainous characters (antagonists amount to unnamed protestors and Charity’s snobby father), there is something to be said for the film’s choice to keep things relatively welcoming with the cast. Some bad attitudes and differences of opinions come up (including a contrived homewrecker bit), but if The Greatest Showman is designed to bring in the whole family, it strives for a positive experience headed up by Jackman’s unflappable soul and energy.

That in mind, Jackson is aided by others. Williams does what she can as the supportive wife, although seeing her portray a woman who has not been beaten down by life is a nice change of pace. Efron and Zendaya are good enough with their roles as circus performers, along with Keala Settle, the Tony Award-winning actress who is bound to leave an impression as the bearded lady with the film’s strongest singing voice. Ferguson could have added her own singing experience into the mix in her troublesome role as famed Swedish Singer Jenny Lind, but she’s overdubbed and eventually sidelined as the film can’t find a better way to deal with her. Then there’s Paul Sparks as James Gordon Bennett, the critic and founder of the New York Herald. The Greatest Showman is the rare film who does good by the critic and even finds Sparks and Jackman sharing one of the film’s best scenes together, although it’s only through arguing that this is a film for the fans.

I suppose I’ve been dancing around the film’s problems, not unlike some of Barnum’s performers, but it comes down to how hollow the entire experience ends up feeling. The songs are good in the moment, and I welcome hearing some of them again, but they do little to make an empty film suddenly have more depth. As it stands, The Greatest Showman is only 100 minutes (without credits), and it feels like there’s a good chunk missing.

There are likely stories to come involving this production, but the final product does feel like a film that’s been re-edited from a more challenging, PG-13 musical drama to a more lighthearted PG family musical. That’s not inherently bad, but there are large gaps in the storytelling, and the end of the film left me wanting more closure.

Perhaps the film was redesigned to stay away from Barnum’s more questionable handling of his show (we see none of the animal acts), but it also means wondering why Barnum and his show were considered a fraud. The film gives me no real reason to understand what was upsetting people as far as authenticity and it strangely doesn’t provide any resolve to this aspect either. If all of this was to keep Jackman looking likable throughout, they might have succeeded, but at what cost.

The Prestige is a much different film, but it gave Jackman the opportunity to stretch his legs by honing in on how great a showman he is and eventually subvert that angle. The Greatest Showman seems like a film that courted this idea and then removed it in favor of more elaborate hat tricks. That can work if the final number were to have felt like a real stunner, but instead, the most conventional route is taken, and no actual arc takes shape, leaving us to wonder what else happened in the later history of Barnum’s circus.

It’s upsetting because there is a lot to like in The Greatest Showman and following the massive box office success of La La Land, one would hope that a film like this (which has been held off for so long because of how risky musicals are these days) would come out without feeling compromised. Instead, here’s a film that’s been cut to the bone and will have to hopefully not scare away other studios from putting their resources behind other cinematic musicals in development. Whether or not that’s a thing to have to be concerned about, I can say The Greatest Showman is an okay tribute, just not on the level of a genuine three-ring circus.


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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