(2017—Director: Michael Gracey)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“You don’t need everyone to love you, Phin. Just a few good people.” — Wife Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) to husband P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman)
Potential spoilers below
When La La Land made its splash and won many hearts towards the end of 2016 (including my own), it marked a mainstream breakthrough for the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (hereafter referred to as Pasek and Paul). Their collaboration with La La Land score composer Justin Hurwitz earned the trio Academy Awards. It also set the stage for Pasek and Paul’s next film musical offering, which would arrive in the form of a period biographical drama about P.T. Barnum, penned by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who directed Beauty & the Beast from earlier in 2017) and brought to life by Australian visual effects artist Michael Gracey in his directorial debut. The resulting movie dazzles the eyes and ears, but its constrained length limits its impact on the heart and the mind.
The son of a poor tailor, Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (Hugh Jackman) dreams of success and renown to provide for his beloved wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely) in pre-Civil War America. Barnum risks everything to establish a wax figure museum, but it fails to draw patrons. His daughters suggest that he invest in something more “alive”. With the help of unfulfilled playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and the participation of New York City’s most ostracized citizens, Barnum sets out to change the world of show business.
I would argue that The Greatest Showman embodied the phrase “style over substance” the most in cinema in 2017. Everyone sings well and moves well, wearing stylish costumes amid lavish sets (a few real, the rest CGI). Hugh Jackman reminds audiences that a musical soul vivifies his more well-known adamantium skeleton. Fans of the High School Musical trilogy and 2007’s Hairspray will delight in seeing Zac Efron in a musical again, especially when paired with fellow Disney Channel alum Zendaya (who stole a few scenes in Spider-Man: Homecoming from last summer). Their “Rewrite the Stars” duet and trapeze performance is one of the more romantic and breathtaking scenes of 2017.
However, The Greatest Showman’s 105-minute runtime impairs the film’s ability to make a lasting impression. One can register the movie’s rather breezy pace from the sprawling montage that proceeds while the well-written “A Million Dreams” plays. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script lacks the space to recreate the misguided but nevertheless complex societal standards of pre-Civil War America. Instead, the film resorts to a blunt and jarring projection of modern-day outlooks onto the past, further stressed by the more contemporary and thus anachronistic musical style and dance choreography. The limited runtime also commits the flaw of making the songs come off as the solution to everyone’s problems. “This Is Me”, The Greatest Showman’s big Oscar-contending song, jams the underdeveloped subplot of Barnum’s shrinking relationship with his circus troupe into a condensed plot. When the story finds Barnum at his lowest low, the troupe sings the act three kickoff song “From Now On” with him rather than confronting him about his neglectful attitude towards them.
The Greatest Showman acts less as a step forward and more as an artistic stumble for Pasek and Paul and for the movie musical. One can enjoy the film as a diversionary spectacle for this recent Christmas season, but one could also argue that a musical bio-drama of P.T. Barnum (whose circus franchise just closed in May of 2017) demands another half-hour or so to give the narrative more meat. Listening to The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack more as a concept album might end up becoming the preferred option for those who imagine a stronger version of the film. Alas, The Greatest Showman, while executing some glorious musical numbers, falls short of giving us “everything we ever want” in a movie musical and will likely dissuade the further resurgence of musicals on the big screen outside of the animated realm.
(Parental Note: The Greatest Showman has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic elements, including a brawl”. It has also been rated PG (Parental Guidance) by the BBFC for “brief mild threat” and “violence” and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “some nonlethal violence, a mild oath, and a racial slur.”)