When I first saw the trailer for The Greatest Showman, I was part intrigued because I’m a sucker for a good musical but I was also reticent because I feared the story of PT Barnum wasn’t full enough to justify a whole film. However this isn’t a film about PT Barnum or even the circus of misfits he attracts in the name of fame and fortune. This is really a story about the lost and those that find their way and those that do not. It just happens to have music and dancing in it.
The story is as old as time with our ‘hero’ PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a down on his luck man trying to prove his worth to both his family and those who doubted him comes up with an idea unlike any other. What he decides is to bring together a group of outcasts and unique individuals for a show aimed to inspire and amaze and most of all provide fun for anyone who sees it. However this newfound fame begins to get to his head, something that could bring everything he helped build come crashing down.
What follows is a film with an over abundance of joy that may play a little saccharine at times but its message is clear. This is a film unashamed by its optimism and honestly, right now that’s something sorely needed. there is no political commentary here, this is inclusive viewing inviting everyone to see the spectacle and asking that all they do in return is leave their cynicism at the door.
I thought going in that this was going to be the problem with this Jackman fronted film but thankfully the wide open heart of the film helps it cover up its cracks. The main issue to be had, and in the grand scheme its a small one, is that ultimately the story seems incomplete due to the overstuffed nature of the film. Striving to pull at your heart strings too much is what drags it down by the end as the films many different plot points feel under developed and easily wrapped up.
Despite this being Jackman’s show in both the opening and closing, something I will come back to later, The Greatest Showman is really an ensemble film that is graced by some excellent performances. Director Michael Gracey has developed a full group of interesting characters, not because of the flaws that make them ideal for the circus but because of the characters they are. I’m sure everyone has talked to death the brilliance of Keala Settle’s Lettie Lutz, the shows bearded lady but it deserves saying again. Equally impressive is Zac Efron who shines and matches Jackman’s endless charisma and sometimes even eclipses it.
That being said, the film only works thanks to Gracey’s attention to detail creating not just a special group to follow but also in creating a world that feels new and classic at the same time. Somehow this period piece crackles with a modern pace where at times you can forget the setting. In creating this world inside the circus he has created two distinct tones within the film. Outside the show, all these characters lack a life that performance gives them, the colour palate outside the show is bleaker but within the show everything is full of life and colour.
These two dynamics play into the idea that these characters are searching for direction, for meaning. Despite that though, thanks to these dual worlds one is infinitely more interesting than the other with the film lacking in its quieter moments. The problem with this is that the main story takes place outside of this circus bubble and its hard to focus on these smaller scale emotional moments. This duality also creates a crisis of self within the film as well as it can’t seem to decide who the film is ultimately about.
While Gracey seems devoted to telling the story of PT Barnum at first, he gets side-tracked in the 2nd act building the circus and when he does return to Barnum’s story in the films closing its hard to see if the film is coming full circle or if its missing the point dramatically. Sure the film closes up most of its story arcs in a somewhat satisfying way but there is a sense that the film gets lost in closing up shop because as we all know, the show must go on.