Back in high school, I acted in a musical about the life and times of infamous showman P.T. Barnum simply titled Barnum. Written by Mark Bramble, the play illustrates much of the showman’s adult life and does not sugarcoat the truth about how he was an opportunist who made his fame through exploitation and trickery. Ultimately, he meets the Bailey of “Barnum and Bailey” and the play ends on an, “and the rest is history,” note, as the legacy of the infamous circus has become Barnum’s longstanding contribution to American culture. Or perhaps not anymore. The tent poles have finally been taken down for good, and the last vestige of nostalgic love for the circus has hit the movie theaters with newcomer Michael Gracey’s film The Greatest Showman (2017).
The Greatest Showman is a massive departure from Bramble’s excellent musical. We start with Barnum as the poor son of a tailor who is orphaned young and is forced to make it on his own in the streets. He is given an apple by a woman with a facial deformity during a montage of this rough time in his life, and then next thing we know Barnum has grown up into a young and handsome Hugh Jackman. He marries his childhood friend, Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), and they have two perfect little children. Still striving for more, Barnum opens up an oddities exhibit in New York City and makes an open call for “freaks” to fill his museum with live exhibits. His show grows in popularity despite garnering public disdain, and he meets playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who helps bring global acclaim to his show.
This is honestly a bizarre film. First off, if you felt my description of the movie’s story was choppy and brief then you’re right because that’s what this movie is. Normally your typical movie musical is at least over two hours long, as you need ample room to develop your story and characters while giving enough time for your song and dance numbers. The Greatest Showman clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, which is so not enough time for a story this complex and involved. Or rather, a story that should be complex and involved. I may have been misleading by bringing up Bramble’s work because this movie is not an attempt to adapt his musical. The Greatest Showman is an original film with lyrics done by the guys who did La La Land (2016), and it’s very obvious that this film only wants to be an entertaining musical and get people excited for circus nostalgia. I can certainly understand the motivations behind that marketing angle, but the rest of the film ends up suffering because the creators skimped out on an intelligible script.
What do I mean by “intelligible script”? Well, quite simply, no one’s motivations in this movie make any goddang sense. According to this movie, young Barnum being helped one time by a lady with a deformed face was what led him to think hiring entertainers with physical deformities was a good idea as an adult. Barnum being a charlatan – a huge aspect of the real-life person – is boiled down in this film to one act of Barnum using what is essentially an expired trading vessel deed to fund his oddities museum, and this is only established by the fact that Barnum was a starving child living on the street and had to steal to get by. On top of that, his wife doesn’t like him getting more involved in pursuing his dreams of show business even when her character sings three different songs about doing that exact same thing with him in the beginning of the dang movie! Huge details about these people’s lives that could’ve been explored to make for a more interesting and meaningful movie are completely glossed over and I couldn’t help wanting more – and not in a good way.
This is ultimately because of the time and effort given to the movie’s many song and dance numbers, which are simultaneously the best and worst part of the movie. The way these numbers are choreographed and shot absolutely blew me away and they feel like the natural evolution of musical cinema. Seriously, the bar had been completely raised. Musical numbers in this film are not typical, theatrical, statically shot Ziegfeld-esque set pieces; they are fully realized three-dimensional spaces that are explored with the movement of the camera and incredibly clever shot choices that are only possible in the film medium. The only other movie I can think of that attempted something similar is Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (2012), but you can tell there that the blocking feels rather restricted by the camera needing to record the actor’s live-singing in the cramped sets. Even though, yes, most of the ensemble numbers in The Greatest Showman occur in these inexplicable circus ring arenas that keep popping up, the camera still glides around all of the characters present and utilizes slow-motion to capture every awesome moment at the peak (or quiet) moment of a song. Zac Efron, who swore he’d never do musicals again, actually stands out due to his ability to match singing and dancing skills with the very experienced Jackman and the fabulously talented Zendaya, who plays an acrobat in Barnum’s show that Carlyle falls in love with. At the end of the day, they get the visual spectacle of a movie-musical incredibly right. The auditory part, however…
… Well, the actual songs in the movie kind of suck. Too many of the songs’ scores sound the same, and lyrically they’re either about following your dreams, having big dreams, or not being afraid of who you are. It’s all very cheesy and doesn’t feel very original or inspired – it’s the easiest and most blanket theming out there. It gives the impression that they simplified this movie for children, which I’m sure is why Barnum is portrayed as an innocent family man who only wants to bring smiles to the children of the world through his entertainment. I guess that’s not a malicious endeavor – to want to make a movie-musical for children – but the film clearly ends up lacking because of it. It’s comical how literally everything this man interacts with in his life has to have a visual tie-in to the circus. The film itself ends up becoming a fitting metaphor for the man it tries to portray: a visually distracting lie wrapped up with the smile of a tried and true entertainer.
This is a very bizarre film. It’s worth mentioning that the dance numbers accompanying each song are incredible and thankfully the best part of the movie, with the filmmakers taking advantage of the film medium by utilizing exciting camera movements and slow-motion to help accent the already impressive singing and choreography. However, most the songs sound very similar and are always about the same vague notions of following your dreams, having big dreams, and being who you are. On top of that, character motivations are half-heartedly established and skip over what could have been incredibly interesting aspects of Barnum’s character. At least it’s only an hour and 45 minutes, which is probably the reason why the writing feels rushed and incomplete and why so many of the songs sounds similar.