The Greatest Showman is the type of movie that kind of defies qualitative assessment. Don’t get me wrong, the Hugh Jackman-led P.T. Barnum circus musical is a bad movie, but one that’s just enjoyably bad enough to keep you entertained. If you loathe musicals, this definitely ain’t for you. But if you indulge in gaudy show tunes, and can relinquish all desire for a logical plot and developed characters, then, in the melodically whispered words of Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman is everything you ever want, it’s everything you ever need, it’s where you want to be.
The Golden Globe-nominated circus musical (an insane string of words I never dreamed I’d write) is helmed by first-time Australian director Michael Gracey, whose previous credits include music videos and commercials, and written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. There’s something for Broadway fans too; the soundtrack, which may just get itself a Best Song Oscar nomination for one of its catchiest tracks, “This Is Me,” comes from La La Land and Dear Even Hansen composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The music is everything you’d expect from a larger-than-life musical, with a handful of earworm tracks that will be stuck in your head against your will (trust me, I am living proof), most of which are anachronistically pop-y. After seeing The Greatest Showman and listening to bits of the soundtrack, the truth is, I honestly cannot tell you whether the songs are downright awful or kind of okay, or maybe even good? All I know is they are a lot.
The movie wastes no time cranking up the dial to 11. The dramatically (and poorly) lit opening number finds Jackman’s showbiz impresario P.T. Barnum dressed as the circus ringleader with top hat, coattails, and all. Tapping his cane to the beat then galloping around a ring of synchronized dancers, Jackman, doing his best Trent Reznor impression, sings in a low grumble that crescendos into a speedy rap – yes, Wolverine raps in this movie.
You know that feeling when something is so shamelessly over-the-top that you immediately blush out of embarrassment? That’s how I felt watching this, and yet I was also captivated. Jackman and co. are here to entertain us no matter the material, and they deliver. Jackman, as expected, goes all in, but Zac Efron, as Barnum’s business partner Phillip Carlyle, is totally in his element here. After a spate of bro-y roles, he’s back to singing and dancing once again, and it’s a blast to watch. As someone who fully admits High School Musical is one of my guilty pleasures, I enjoyed the heck out of watching Efron charm his way through a serious of corny show tunes.
Set in the mid 1800s in New York City, we first meet Barnum as a poor tailor’s son who falls for a young rich girl – never heard this story before! They share a cutesy number about dreaming of better lives and yada-yada. Then little Barnum grows up into Jackman, and the girl grows up into Michelle Williams’ Charity. The two wed, have kids, and live happily ever after despite financial woes and being disowned by her parents. Then Barnum decides to start his own venture: a museum of taxidermic animals and wax figures. The business is failing – because, let’s be real, who in the history of humankind would actually pay money to see wax figures? – so he looks to expand it into something more.
Finally, Barnum has an epiphany. After he sees a crowd of people making fun of a small man – Sam Humphrey playing the legendary Tom Thumb – Barnum remembers the time a disabled person once showed him kindness as a boy by giving him an apple. In that moment Barnum has the realization that, hey, minorities are actually nice people worthy of respect too! But also, hecklers would totally pay to see them up close. So Barnum finds and hires all the “oddities” he can around town – unusually tall people, short people, heavy people, tattooed people, albino people, a pair of black acrobatic siblings, and a bearded lady. And thus, the circus was born.
But we hardly see these circus performers showcase their talents and oddities. Instead it’s just a movie featuring circus characters who sing and do choreographed dance numbers. Sure, this is a musical and illogical breaks into song and dance are expected; but isn’t this movie supposed to be about the invention of the circus? Actually no; instead of fleshing its most interesting characters, from Keala Settle’s bearded lady Leddie Lutz to Zendaya’s acrobat Anne Wheeler, it’s only concerned with Barnum. The Greatest Showman is really about an success-hungry guy who exploits the hell out of people who are different to sensationalize them for his own gain. Then, after abandoning them for a more traditional performer (Rebecca Ferguson, as opera singer Jenny Lind, who seems to be cosplaying Celine Dion in one song), the movie asks us to admire him for giving those outcasts a family. The Greatest Showman has all the polish of an inspirational tale, pretending to be a rousing story championing diversity and difference, but its “Born This Way” message is just lazy and laughable.
But you didn’t come here for a good movie, did you? If you expect nothing more than a ridiculous musical, one where Jackman rides an elephant through the streets of Manhattan, jumps onto a moving train mid-song, and seduces Efron in a number oozing with sexual chemistry – if only this was an Efron-Jackman romance titled The Gayest Showman – you’ll leave relatively satisfied.