Written by: Jenny Bicks & Bill Condon
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle
Having good intentions when making a film based on the life of a real person comes with a level of respect but additionally, there needs to be a moment of honesty as well when the subject has a reputation for doing horrid things to others. When these negative elements get outright ignored for the sake of creating a light-hearted affair, it thus becomes a sanitization job. The Greatest Showman falls hard into this issue and it takes away from the incredibly catchy original songs it provides.
After getting let go by his employer, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) gets the idea of creating something intriguing for people to watch. As he transitions from wax figures to freak performers, he finds success while also creating a family. However, he continues to struggle with his relationship to his father-in-law and his incessant need to be accepted by those in higher social classes.
In crafting this feature, the filmmakers behind the production create one of the biggest unforced errors I’ve ever seen in cinema history. In its efforts to create a fun-loving and energetic story about people on the outside of society finding a home together and someone chasing their dreams, they decide to provide a spotlight on someone who did this while causing horrendous harm to these very people.
It does not take much research to learn of what P.T. Barnum did to his performers in his efforts to rise on the social ladders of the wealthy and the attempt made within this narrative to slightly touch on it feels like a slap in the face. It feels like the ultimate self-own because probably no one came into this feature excited to watch a biopic on P.T. Barnum but rather a fun musical led by talents like Jackman, Zac Effron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Williams, and everyone else. Box office receipts show it maintained as a massive hit, not because of the biopic nature but rather the catchy songs. This story could have been about a fictional leader of a circus troupe but they decided to try and uphold the legacy of such a sinister man for no reason. Not to give away any plot points but there comes a scene where all of the “freaks” gather around Barnum, despite his faults and agree he created a community for them and ultimately forgive him for his forgetfulness. A near vomit-inducing sequence that moves this from outright sanitization to complete glorification of this man to a fictional degree. It becomes difficult to fathom what made these producers go so hard for this man, but it completely strips away the goodwill the performances and songs provide.
Without a doubt, the film’s greatest asset comes from its music. I cannot imagine there were too many people who walked out of this movie without at least one of these songs swirling around in their head. From “This Is Me,” “Never Enough,” and “Greatest Show” this feature comes jam-packed with tunes filled with thematic resonance. As a movie musical, this particular aspect of the film certainly comes to play in spades to ratchet up the emotion and move the plot along. The choreography matching up with the music also comes together with a beautiful sense of rhythm and splendor as well. The emotional beats get felt, particularly in “This Is Me” as it gets to the heart and soul of this film. It truly becomes a shame the film continually gets overshadowed by Barnum’s need to be a social climber, even to the extent of hurting the very people he sought to help to begin with.
Do not let my disappointment in the fixation on Barnum also take away that the other aspects of the filmmaking involved left plenty to be desired. The visual effects lacked, especially when Barnum inexplicably wants to ride an elephant for some asinine reason. Additionally, the storytelling in play also comes together in such a shoddy fashion where plot contrivances get utilized far too often in order to push things along. All this film needed within its narrative was to create a steady foundation for the songs to take over as these musical moments held most of the emotionally resonant peaks the film has to offer. Instead, on several occasions, the plot gets in the way of the music.
An unfortunate mixed bag where the songs carry a musical to incredible heights but it gets let down heavily by inept storytelling and the horrid glorification of a man nearly the opposite of what gets portrayed on screen. My goodness, it’s one thing for it to merely omit his negative features but the extent to which it turns around his worst tendencies to the point where he gets glorified for it leaves an incredibly sour taste in my mouth that no wonderfully lip-synced actors could possibly completely eradicate.