“The Greatest Showman” is a clichéd, overcrowded but nevertheless competent musical. Designed as a dramatization of the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), the co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film neglects to flesh out the problematic racial politics surrounding its subject and instead opts for a feel-good, family-friendly vibe.
The tendency to smooth out the jagged edges of Barnum’s personality ultimately results in a hagiography intended to function as a year-end celebration of diversity and unity rather than a nuanced biopic exploring the foibles of its characters.
“The Greatest Showman” traces out Barnum’s rags-to-riches story, first exploring his humble origins and childhood romance with the upper-class Charity (Michelle Williams). After a rushed song-and-dance number, we are introduced to the adult Barnum and his struggles to provide a stable livelihood for Charity and their children.
Out of nowhere, Barnum, while cobbling together a gift for his daughter’s birthday, gets the idea to open a museum full of exotic animals and stage performers. The rest of the film follows this motley crew as it popularizes the circus while grappling with Barnum’s growing selfishness.
While the central story sounds conventional, it could have been successful had the screenplay allowed moments for its individual characters to develop. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and the speed of the plot overshadows the central themes that the film is attempting to establish.
For example, nowhere is Barnum’s motivation to start the circus sketched out. How did he get the idea for the circus in the first place, and why did he believe that the circus would be popular? Offering answers to these pivotal questions is not even attempted by the film, and Barnum’s character arc is incomplete as a result.
Another flaw of Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s undercooked screenplay is its dismissal of the performers in Barnum’s circus who are not played by Zac Efron or Zendaya. We don’t really see how the members of the crew prepare their performances or work as a unit.
Furthermore, the powerful song “This Is Me” — which reveals how Barnum’s circus has given the crew members a chance to embrace their uniqueness instead of being trapped by it — looks like it will launch a more detailed exploration of the crew members’ individual lives and their interpersonal relationships. But that never happens, and the performers in Barnum’s circus end up being treated as mere symbols of diversity rather than actual, lived-in characters.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
Frustratingly, the rushed nature of the screenplay could have been solved by an extended run time. As it stands, though, the writing ends up being the primary flaw in the film and turns it into somewhat of a mess.
Regardless, the musical sequences are exquisitely crafted across the board. Standouts include the aforementioned “This Is Me,” “The Other Side” — the Jackman-and-Efron barhopping team we desperately needed in our lives — and the trapeze-based romantic melody “Rewrite the Stars,” which focuses on the seemingly doomed attraction between Zendaya and Efron.
The latter two sequences are particularly distinguished by their impressive choreography. Efron and Zendaya’s romantic arc stands out as well — it’s well-balanced in terms of screen time and shines a much-needed light on the prejudices facing people of color.
Ultimately, though, it’s Jackman’s charisma and the earnestness in his soft, silky baritone that make “The Greatest Showman” more than the sum of its unequal parts. It’s hard to take your eyes off Jackman as he cries, laughs, shouts, sings, dances and runs through the 105 minutes of the movie.
Perhaps the lack of subtlety in “The Greatest Showman,” as well as its willingness to present a world in which diversity is recognized as a strength rather than a hindrance, is the cinematic pain reliever we need right now. As long as the fictionalization of Barnum is taken as a fanciful dramatization rather than a concrete and objective depiction of his personality, the sugary sincerity of “The Greatest Showman” should work to its benefit.
“The Greatest Showman” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.