“The Greatest Showman’s” upbeat attitude and relentless do-goodiness are what will make people enter its hallowed theater doors. Its poor storytelling and inability to balance characters are what will make audiences want to leave. This movie deserves no encore, but its bold, distinctive style does prove that first-time filmmaker Michael Gracey has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, the eponymous circus maestro whose name you spotted on billboards whenever his show was marching through your city. “The Greatest Showman” focuses on Barnum before he was great, back when he was just a poor, imaginative tailor boy with no realistic means of winning a wealthy girl’s heart. Grown up Barnum does end up marrying said girl,Charity (Michelle Williams), who doesn’t mind a life of poverty if its filled with rich memories. After getting laid off, Barnum gets the idea to open a museum of, well, circus freaks, and then eventually opens said circus.
Barnum’s merry band of misfit performers become quite the sensation, elevating his social status so high, even beyond the reach of his Irish giant. At the top of the arts world, Barnum meets Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) a more critically-favored theater producer who pals up with Barnum and even falls in love with his trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya).
There’s a lot of external forces hampering Barnum and his three-ringed happiness. He doesn’t have enough money, critics don’t like him, the public hates his performers, and his father-in-law loathes him. It’s a lot to shove on one character, and its done in such a way that we honestly have no idea what Barnum really wants or why he’s jumping through so many hoops. Like annoying first-time customers who sample dozens of items in line at Panda Express, writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon waste hours trying out different wants and needs for Barnum but never summoning up the courage to order one specific character entree.
Barnum’s character flaws aren’t that big of a deal until we get to the second act, where the circus star becomes entranced with a European opera singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Even though we’re still confused as to who Barnum really is and what motivates him, we feel that his pursuit of Lind is totally out of character. He loves his family, his show and he hasn’t even seen this woman perform before he decides to risk his life’s work and fortune on her. Sure, this movie is based on a true story, and the actual motivations behind Barnum and Lind’s relationship probably make more sense in real life. But in this movie world, Barnum’s dreamlike fascination for Lind is a nightmarish experience for the audience.
There are two standout musical numbers, “A Million Dreams,” and Efron and Zendaya’s duet on “Rewrite the Stars.” The rest of the songs are forgettable or just laughable, like the bar-dancing brodown that Jackman and Efron have in “The Other Side.” And for a movie about the circus, there’s surprisingly little actual footage of the circus, save for montage sequences. Part of the joy of watching a movie about “The Greatest Show On Earth” should be actually seeing that show onscreen.
But this is a first-time effort from Gracey, who clearly wanted to establish a bold, visual style, where song and dance leap seamlessly from frame to frame in a bearded-lady ballet. He didn’t accomplish that, but Gracey did prove that he does have a distinct style to be a versatile storyteller in the future. He just needs to revisit the storytelling machinations behind “The Greatest Showman” to understand where his show went wrong.