The world-famous P.T. Barnum was many things, but being a respectable, handsome, well-mannered man — basically Hugh Jackman — wasn’t one of them.
An ardent exploiter of people and animals, Barnum’s history of cruelty was well documented throughout the 19th century. “The Greatest Showman” is a simple-minded, sanitized take on the life of a bad man and a bad industry that has only middling results at its best.
Let me be clear, I’m totally able to separate history from the artistic merits of the film, and “The Greatest Showman” thankfully parts with many elements of horrific historical continuity. Portrayed by Jackman, Barnum’s rise to fame after a life of poverty is fun enough as a musical. As he secures immense profits from spectacle after spectacle, his ambitions come to overshadow his bond with the community of freaks he constructed.
The film struggles the most with its storytelling balance. Moments of conflict between the freaks and Barnum never feel earned and neither do moments of empathy or kinship either. That’s not to mention the overly blatant schlock-fest every single time one of them speaks.
The film is at its worst in the moments leading up to the “This is Me” musical number. An absolutely laughable attempt at an inspiring counter-culture song led by a bearded lady.
The relationship between Michelle Williams’ Charity Barnum and Jackman’s P.T. Barnum is at least sincerely touching and was probably the best element of the film. The introduction in “A Million Dreams” was a great opener and had the best emotional moments of the film. Though I never bought the struggle Barnum had in balancing the circus with his family, the scenes focusing on the latter were easily the most enjoyable parts.
Jackman is the film’s saving grace. The sheer amount of fun he has with the role is written every moment across his face as he’s singing and dancing the show away. The character is a messy, disgusting man, but Jackman is so likeable and energetic, it’s hard to believe he’s portraying the role of a seedy con artist. Honestly, the film doesn’t deserve him.
Zac Efron also does a solid job as Barnum’s producing partner, especially during the musical numbers. Jackman and Efron share a great musical scene in “The Other Side,” as they negotiate the terms of their partnership at a bar in jolly, shoe-tapping fun, though the same can’t really be said of his overly digressive subplot involving an acrobat played by Zendaya.
Knowing that the music of “The Greatest Showman” is behind the same team as last year’s excellent “La La Land,” it’s a shame to note that many of the songs begin to sound very similar to each other by the second half of the film.
I was incredibly baffled by the inconsistent production design of the film. The beginning sets are made out to seem like the film will be a tribute to the aesthetics of stage musicals, but a few scenes later there were fully adorned buildings and set pieces that look nothing like what preceded them. Some sets were traditionally ornate, but others were hideously simple.
I’m being rough on the film, though it’s sure to please plenty of people.
Interestingly enough there is a snobby critic character in the film whose bad reviews of Barnum’s exhibits are turned on their head. Barnum claims he doesn’t “get” the art of entertainment, and it’s almost like the film is excusing itself by demeaning critical perspectives through this character. I was offended more by this take on what entertainment is than I was by the derogatory treatment of Barnum’s freaks.
“The Greatest Showman” is a mediocre film mired by weak storytelling and composition saved only slightly by Jackman’s all-out effort. Much like the real Barnum’s spectacles, the film is a fictional piece for the masses looking to get the lowest-common-denominator’s worth of entertainment.
Hector Valverede is a culture reporter with the Daily Lobo. He primarily writes movie reviews. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hpvalverde.