December ushers in two types of films: the prestige pictures (The Post, The Disaster Artist) and the family-friendly pictures (Pitch Perfect 3, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). Then there’s The Greatest Showman, a film that offers an anthemicly-infused look into the life of the infamous P.T. Barnum and one that straddles the line between period drama and affable spectacle perfectly for the holiday season. But how do you tackle the life of the man who created the modern circus? You do it by instilling the average biopic narrative with the rhythm and beauty of musical theater and culminating in a cinematic experience that’s perfectly emblematic of the spirit of Barnum; an impressive debut for director Michael Gracey.
The Greatest Showman tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), born a tailor’s son, whose large dreams of a world filled of incredible wonders would require a herculean effort to surmount due to his low-born station. Undeterred, Barnum sought any means he could to rise above – stealing, selling newspapers, and joining the railroad – until he raised enough funds to, first, marry his childhood love Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), and then move to New York City to live their dreams. Despite the realities of the world trying to hold Barnum back, he creates opportunities wherever he can, leading him to open a museum of oddities and curiosities – the first step to creating the world-renowned extravaganza that toured the world for nearly two centuries.
Showman succeeds on multiple levels. Costume design work by Ellen Mirojnick (Logan Lucky) draws the eye as each character dresses immaculately. The costumes feel almost too clean and elegant given the time period and underlying narratives of racial and class tension, yet it’s forgivable as the pop of the color enhances the Broadway-esque feel of Seamus McGarvey’s (Nocturnal Animals) gorgeous cinematography. The costumes and cinematography working in concert with Gracey’s background in visual effects help Showman transcend its biopic origins and become something more fantastical – which is what you should be aiming for if you’re making a Barnum.
While Showman is truly an ensemble piece where each song is elevated by the performances and vice versa, there are some true stand-outs. Leading the troupe is Jackman, a proven versatile performer and this particular performance has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in the Musical or Comedy category. As his wife, Williams holds her own as an equal with Jackman, matching him step for step and note for note. Her performance begs the question of when she may get the chance to sing on stage. Zac Efron, an accomplished performer in his own right, appears as socialite Phillip Carlyle, a man with too much money and a great deal of connections, who serves as the audience’s social proxy as the narrative dips into the tensions of the era. Efron gives no quarter with Jackman’s Barnum – highlighted in the rather fun song “The Other Side” – as they work out their impending partnership. Where Barnum has Charity, Efron’s Carlyle has Anne Wheeler, an aerialist portrayed by Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming). Skilled in trapeze work, as well as an accomplished singer, Zendaya effortless conveys a woman more comfortable flying through the air, risking her life night after night, than she is walking the streets as a black woman in 1800s New York. There are times when the Anne/Carlyle narrative feels forced as the story moves away from Barnum, yet their chemistry together – and song “Rewrite the Stars” – is undeniable and makes you long for more.
Speaking of the music, each song performed in Showman feels meticulously designed to be a standout single, their anthemic nature makes them irresistible. Whether the wholesome and hopeful “A Million Dreams” sung by Ziv Zaifman, Jackman, and Williams – embodying the desires of Barnum to rise above his lowly station – or “The Other Side” sung by Jackman and Zac Efron, each song is suffused with ambition, longing, and desire. The standout track is “This is Me” sung by Keala Settle and The Greatest Showman Ensemble, a song that’s as heart-aching as it is inspirational for not only its theme of self-acceptance and self-worth, but whose messages resonates in today’s political climate of divisiveness. Rightfully, it’s also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song – Motion Picture. While the story doesn’t focus so much on the theme of embracing our differences as much as you’d expect, that doesn’t make the songs all less resonant. Song writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Academy Awards winners for 2016’s La La Land, outdid themselves and may just find themselves in the running again this year.
Watching a film like The Greatest Showman you’re aware that though the characters are real, the events we’re watching are adjusted for dramatic impact. Combined with the flair of musical theater, Showman is exactly that – a show, a display, a charade. This only becomes detrimental to the experience when you notice how quickly the narrative moves from one plot point to another without taking time to contemplate or examine what’s occurred or relying heavily on the songs to convey meaning or emotional weight to the events unfolding before us. In this way, Showman suffers by not taking into consideration the consequences of the story, favoring the bright lights and big dreams over the crushing reality that likely occurred. It’s a significant weight that brings down aspects of Showman, yet it’s also one that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are wisely aware of – inserting the character of art critic James Bennett (Paul Sparks) who frequently acknowledges the short-comings of Barnum. It’s an important recognition for a film that takes more of the imagination of Barnum than perhaps the truth of the man. This fault, however, doesn’t stop Showman from being exceptionally engaging, earnest, and heartfelt – making it absolutely perfect for holiday viewing.
The Greatest Showman can be summed up in the words of Jackman’s Barnum, “men suffer for imagining too little, not too much.” It’s an undeniable spectacle that will dazzle and delight, even if the story itself is a touch forgettable. The soundtrack, however, will wiggle under your skin and get you dancing in your seat, infectious from beginning to end. When it comes to the holidays, all families want to do is have a little fun, which Showman possesses in spades. So come one, come all – buy your tickets and see the birth of the greatest show on Earth.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.