Biography Drama

'The Greatest Showman' Film Review: A charismatic Hugh Jackman headlines this musical with big heart and big spectacle

December 20, 2017Siobhán Finn

Making a movie has been likened to a three-ring circus by numerous people over the years, so it should come as no surprise that first-time feature director Michael Gracey decided to make the old saying a reality in The Greatest Showman. The not entirely historically accurate retelling of the life of P.T. Barnum and the birth of his eponymous circus comes to vivid life with spectacular set-pieces, vibrant costumes, toe-tapping musical numbers and the power of one man's charisma.

Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) was the son of a tailor who dreamed of much more. With the blessing of his wife, Charity (a lackluster Michelle Williams), the unemployed Barnum decides to open a wax museum but soon finds his attendance numbers lacking. Inspired by one of his daughters' observation that Barnum's American Museum "needs something alive," he seeks out unusual acts like the bearded lady, the world's tallest man, the world's fattest man and a brother/sister trapeze act. Despite his newfound success, however, Barnum is still a punchline to New York's elite, so he tries to legitimize himself by taking on business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and later embarking on a national tour with European opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

Ferguson is the only lead actor whose singing voice was dubbed (by The Voice's Loren Allred), but Williams' thin voice could have used the same treatment. While most of the songs fail to move the plot forward, the one significant exception is the fun drinking number "The Other Side," performed by Jackman and Efron. Efron later shows off his High School Musical training during "Rewrite the Stars," his duet with Zendaya, who, after her criminal underuse in this year's Spider-Man: Homecoming, is finally given the chance to shine.

The movie's standout, however, is easily Tony Award nominee Keala Settle's Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. Lutz is clearly enamored with Barnum, which makes both his dismissal of her and her role in his eventual redemption more significant. Settle's Golden Globe nominated empowerment song, "This is Me," will stay with audiences long after Jackman's bigger showpieces have become faded memories. Her Broadway training shows through as she continually out-sings many of her marquee co-stars.

Jackman's larger-than-life persona, while ideal for the role of P.T. Barnum, frequently overshadows Williams and diminishes any chemistry they may have enjoyed. As the ego-driven Barnum, Jackman doesn't try to hide his character's smarmy, duplicitous nature yet still succeeds in making him likeable because, despite a solid cast behind him, it is Jackman who singlehandedly sells this movie. The Oscar Award winning music team behind La La Land, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, unsurprisingly gave the Jackman the movie's two big showpieces and he doesn't disappoint, delivering singing and dancing worthy of the inevitable Broadway adaptation.

Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, the story relies heavily on the narrative that Barnum is motivated by more than greed, yet by acknowledging Barnum's inherent hucksterism, the movie is never forced to confront his questionable moral or business choices. Likewise, the film carefully sidesteps the issue of animal cruelty within circuses. Live animals are seen in the background of one scene in the second act and only come out in force during the movie's big finale. And to further support the idea of Barnum's appreciation of his four-legged attractions, they are among the first he asks about when disaster befalls the museum.

Barnum refers to his show as a "celebration of humanity," and that is truly what The Greatest Showman tries to be. Driving home the message of family and acceptance, the movie does not pretend to be a deep historical dive into P.T. Barnum's psyche. Rather, it is a light musical with a mostly stellar cast that asks no more of audiences than a couple of hours and to keep an open mind about spontaneous singing and choreography. In a month filled with serious-minded fare and desperate Oscar bait, The Greatest Showman is a delightful bit of frothy respite.

The Greatest Showman releases December 20th, 2017 from 20th Century Fox. The film has an MPAA rating of PG for thematic elements including a brawl. Its runtime is 1 hr. 45 min.

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