TL;DR
  • Unbalanced structure, with important events just happening without much detail
  • Inspirational story with charming characters
  • Music underwhelming and doesn’t always fit
  • Some dance sequences are great fun to watch
  • Most of the circus’ cast is glossed over and uncharacterised
  • Jackman, Williams, Efron and Ferguson are all terrific

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Around Oscar season there’s always a musical there that promises to be the next big thing, often attracting Oscar nominations. With eye-catching trailers promoting catchy songs from the film along with a stellar cast that appeals to the whole family, naturally there are high hopes for such films; Les Miserables, La La Land to name a couple of recent ones – but you can take it back to the likes of Mamma Mia! or Sweeney Todd, not to mention classics like The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Singin’ in the Rain… Musicals can make a big impact on popular films and it’s wonderful when they get it right. One look at the trailer for The Greatest Showman and it seems as though this film has similar aspirations – so does it hit the heights of other recent classics? Sadly, no; whilst this film may be sweet at times and entertaining enough to keep you going until the next musical in about a year’s time, this is unlikely to become a classic family-favourite.

Coming from very poor backgrounds, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is determined to be a success and give his wonderful wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their daughters the luxurious life he wants for them. Taking a loan from a bank, he starts his business, determined to be the next big thing in entertainment. At first just a museum, he soon starts to recruit unusual people, such as acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady (Kerala Settle), and Charles Stratton, a dwarf soon to be known as General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). Once play producer Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) is on his side, his show turns into a full-on, successful circus. Not content with this success, however, Barnum decides to include world-famous opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to attract a bigger audience and get the ‘snobs’ on his side. His blind determination and unwise aspirations though cause him to make some unwise decisions, making things go from bad to worse…all to song and dance routines though!

On the surface, the story of Barnum’s unrelenting climb to fame and success seems like quite an interesting tale. Indeed, throughout the film there are numerous moments where the story is quite captivating. Sadly, these moments are too few in a film like this. Instead the story comes across as cluttered and unstructured. As is all too typical in a biopic, the challenge of including so many important events in one man’s life becomes too much, resulting in so many things just happening; and not in the beautiful, well-choreographed way you see in John Lewis’s advert about a girl growing up. Rather, the important events of Barnum’s life are glossed over and just happen without giving us too much detail, almost as though we’re given an edited version of the film. Getting married, having two adorable children, secondary characters falling in love, building a successful business from nothing, buying a big house… All these things just happen in between scenes and rarely give us much detail to feel as though we’re with Barnum throughout his life. On the contrary, it’s as though we’re trailing behind, picking up the pieces and have to imagine how these things came to be. Of course the age old rags to riches element of the story is inspiring and entertaining as ever; combined with the the musical side of things, its ‘feel-good’ factor is emphasised, but it’s often lost amid a lack of structure and detail.

Still, where dramas and musicals differ is the music, something very much present in this film, though on the whole the music comes as very hit and miss. Partly my old-fashioned taste and love for classical musicals is to blame; but whilst I can appreciate some catchy tunes and good voices, it doesn’t always seem to fit in with the tone and period of the film. This isn’t to say that the music always has to fit in with the period of the film (often it doesn’t but still works well – Hamilton for example), but the music numbers tend to stick out like a sore thumb instead of integrating itself seamlessly into the rest of the film. This is occasionally since there are instances of songs being noticeably shoehorned in and not occurring organically. Adding to this that the songs are obviously pre-recorded and don’t look natural, means that this isn’t the prize-winning element that it should be in a musical. On the other hand though, there are some dance sequences that are well-done and very enjoyable to watch. Sadly these don’t scream glitz and glamour like Barnum deserves, and are occasionally underwhelming, but when the dance scenes work well, they’re great fun to watch and compliment their songs well.

So whilst the songs may be a bit underwhelming, fortunately the cast is not; the main cast is excellent and used brilliantly… Yet this seems to come at a the price of ignoring the rest. Hugh Jackman is stand-out and his charisma and charm permeate each and every scene, letting him almost carry the film singlehandedly. He’s effortlessly likeable and makes the otherwise occasionally irritating ambitions of P.T. Barnum much more palatable. Michelle Williams too is a wonderful addition to the main cast, lending a much needed human, heartwarming and loving touch that she displays marvellously. I’ve never yet seen a film where Williams isn’t terrific and even this film is yet another example of how she deserves every Oscar for which she’s been nominated (so far four times). Rebecca Ferguson also makes the most of her role as the counterpart to Williams’ comforting wife, oozing sexy sensuality, but she certainly deserved more screen time. Disney stars Zac Efron and Zendaya come together in this non-Disney musical and do their thing well – Efron still hasn’t lost any of that pazzazz that made him a hit in High School Musical and it’s great to see him back in the genre, managing to be a great match opposite Jackman. Sadly though the romantic sub-plot between Efron and Zendaya isn’t fleshed out or allowed to develop much. It just happens while Zendaya remains largely silent. Perhaps this is a way of emphasising the race issue her character suffers through, but within the confines of the circus cast, it would have been nice to allow her character to flourish and develop. There are other characters besides these, but sadly the filmmakers seem to have left the majority of the circus cast as a footnote. We have the impressive Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady and Sam Humphrey as dwarf Tom Thumb as spokespeople for an entire roster of interesting characters that make up Barnum’s Circus. Aside from a short Full Monty style audition scene, we rarely get much of a look at them, let alone many lines allowing us to get know these performers. Instead potentially the most interesting people in the film remain in the background for the majority, relegating them to being uncharacterised freaks – it’s a real missed opportunity.

Barnum may have been The Greatest Showman, but this film is not the greatest show by any means. Not to say it’s all bad; on the contrary, it’s pleasant and can easily entertain… but not much more. In a film riddled with missed opportunities, it tries so hard to dazzle and inspire us with awe that it forgets fundamentals in storytelling and characterisation. Much like Barnum’s character, The Greatest Showman sets its sights too high to really pause and appreciate what’s there already. Still, for an easy-going family-friendly musical, you could do worse.

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