Everybody enjoys seeing one form of entertainment or another. Whether it be a movie, theatrical performance, sporting event or concert, there is always something out there that can provide a temporary escape for people and put smiles on their faces. There are also kinds of entertainment, however, that pose questions like, “To what lengths and to whose expense(s) did a show pursue to ensure that all of its spectators leave satisfied?”
The answers to these questions are noticeably absent in “The Greatest Showman,” the debut film of Australian director Michael Gracey. Gracey’s film takes a musical approach to documenting the rise and success of P.T. Barnum and the circus that bears his name.
Young Barnum (Ellis Rubin) is the poor son of a tailor. During one of his father’s house calls, Barnum has a chance encounter with a girl named Charity (Skylar Dunn). After the death of his father, Barnum does his best to scrounge out a living, and as an adult (Hugh Jackman), he returns to the home of the adult Charity (Michelle Williams). They soon marry, live in New York City and raise two daughters.
When the commerce company he works for goes bankrupt, Barnum takes out a loan. Under the guise of owning (sunken) cargo-laden ships from his previous employer as a guarantee, Barnum purchases the “Museum of Curiosities.” Due to the lack of attendance and insistence from his daughters that the museum, containing wax figures and models, should contain “something alive,” Barnum assembles a team of “oddities.” Among them are a “bearded lady” (Keala Settle), the diminutive Charles Stratton aka “General Tom Thumb” (Sam Humphrey) and an acrobat named Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Barnum also takes on an apprentice, playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), as his “circus” (deemed by the press as such), takes flight.
Jackman’s Golden Globe-nominated performance as Barnum is key to holding the film together and keeping it moving at a reasonable pace. In one scene, Barnum creates a makeshift light show on the roof of his family’s apartment, demonstrating his ability to make the smallest of things seem spectacular. Jackman is able to seamlessly infuse the character with his own charm and likability, which elevates Barnum to the grand reputation he developed for himself and his brand. He also brings great exuberance to all the film’s musical numbers in which he is featured.
Speaking of which, these sequences, with lyrics penned by “La La Land” Oscar-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are, no doubt, rousing and full of energy. The standout of the group is “Never Enough,” delivered convincingly by Loren Allred. She provides the signing voice for the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Barnum temporarily manages Lind during a tour of the United States. The numbers, particularly relating to the circus life, echo a hopeful and upbeat sentiment that, unfortunately, does a great disservice to the actual environment present there, especially in the time period reflected.
The film’s message of bringing those “oddities,” human beings in their own right, out of the shadows to stare down and defy public perception is a noble one, as is showing that no dream is unachievable. Treating the film’s material as a musical was not the right way to present it. The film promotes the grandeur and fun of Barnum’s expositions, but omits the circumstances and conditions of all the people which made his shows possible. It was not an easy life for these “oddities,” and showing semblances of the daily hardships they endured would have created a much more honest picture and elevated its respect. Additionally, their characters are vastly underdeveloped, and the audience receives few opportunities to even see them in action during performances.
P.T. Barnum once said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” At what cost, though? That is what leaves “The Greatest Showman” lying in the safety net of the big top.