“The Greatest Showman” is willing to bet almost everything on song and dance as throwing itself into its saccharine show business story which is supposedly inspired by the life and career of P.T. Barnum, an infamous showman known for promoting various hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Feejee mermaid and General Tom Thumb. While its attempt is not entirely successful due to its thin narrative and characterization, and I was also often bothered by its schmaltzy treatment of its subject matters, the movie is still an energetic musical film thanks to its spirited soundtrack and solid performance, and I came to admire its gamely efforts despite reasonable reservation.
After opening with its first musical number “The Greatest Show”, the movie goes back to its hero’s early years. As the son of a poor tailor, Young Barnum (Ellis Rubin), does not look like a suitable match for a rich pretty girl named Charity (Skylar Dunn), but something instantly clicks between them when he and his father come to her father’s big house, and they soon come to spend lots of time with each other. Even after Charity is later sent away to her finishing school, they keep corresponding with each other during next several years, and Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman from this point, eventually marries Charity, who is now played by Michelle Williams, and then raises their two cute daughters along with her in New York City.
While he is happy in his modest family life, Barnum wants to achieve a lot more as an ambitious dreamer, and then there comes a big change which gives him an unexpected chance. A shipping company where he has worked is suddenly shut down, and, as trying to find any possible way to support his family, he decides to do something quite risky. After managing to get a big bank loan, he buys a shabby wax museum located in Manhattan and then promotes it as much as he can, but not many people come to the museum despite his efforts, and that is certainly daunting for not only him but also his supportive family.
When one of his daughters suggests that he should present something ‘alive’, Barnum goes all the way with that idea as assembling a group of ‘freaks’ including a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a dwarf who is later nicknamed General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and a black trapeze artist named W. D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his sister/colleague Anne (Zendaya). Many of them are understandably reluctant at first, but Barnum persuades them all to appear in front of their audiences to be shocked and amazed, and we are served with another lively musical number “Come Alive”.
As his freak show draws more money and attention in spite of considerable disdains from many people including prominent newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), Barnum comes to want some respectability, so he approached to Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a young hotshot playwright who is also the member of a respectable high society family. Carlyle is not so interested at first when Barnum offers him partnership, but then, what do you know, he finds himself being swiftly persuaded by Barnum. Like Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron is no stranger to song and dance, so we get a fun musical moment as they smoothly sing and dance together in “The Other Side”.
After Carlyle joins Barnum’s business, Barnum and his freak show become more popular than ever (Don’t ask me how that happens). They are even invited to the royal court of Queen Victoria of England, and that is where Barnum comes across a beautiful Swedish singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Smitten by her beauty, he brings Lind to US for promoting her talent, and she does not disappoint him and others at all during her first concert performance in US.
Feeling all the more exalted by his continuing rise, Barnum becomes distant to not only his family but also the members of his freak show. This is certainly a predictable plot turn, but it leads to a showstopper moment coupled with Oscar-nominated song “This is Me”, and Keala Settle, a veteran Tony-nominated actress, did a commendable job of imbuing this moment with real passion and sincerity.
In the meantime, the movie pays some attention to the growing affection between Carlyle and Anne. At one point, they are painfully reminded of their racial difference, but then they are reminded again of how much they love each other as singing “Rewrite the Stars”, which is definitely another memorable highlight in the soundtrack by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who previously won an Oscar for “City of Stars” in “La La Land” (2016).
While I must point out that P.T. Barnum in real life was a sleazy, exploitative guy in many aspects, the movie does not try to be a realistic biography drama from the very beginning, and it actually flaunts its artificial sides right in front of our eyes and ears with all those flashy musical sequences in the film. As busily hopping from one musical sequence to another, the movie often suffers from plot contrivance and half-baked characterization, but director Michael Gracey did a fairly good job of maintaining narrative momentum during its rather short running time (104 minutes), and I was seldom bored during my viewing.
I do not think that “The Greatest Showman” is as good as it aims to be, but it is still a recommendable musical film which is relatively less cumbersome than “Mamma Mia!” (2008) and “Les Misérables” (2012), and, above all, it mostly works as an enjoyable showcase of Hugh Jackman’s undeniable musical talent, which, unfortunately, has not been used that frequently for many years. Considering the considerable box office success of “The Greatest Showman”, he may get another good chance to show off his talent, and I sincerely wish that will happen as soon as possible.