Flawed in concept, The Greatest Showman is one of the most uneven viewing experiences of 2017. A musical biopic about the origins of P.T. Barnum isn’t actually an awful idea on an intrinsic level, but the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to make it a feel-good exercise were woefully misguided. And while the film hopes to dazzle audiences with spectacle, it never goes big enough to be spectacular.
The film opens with the childhood relationship of Barnum (Hugh Jackman/Ellis Rubin/Ziv Zaifman) and his future wife Charity (Skylar Dunn/Michelle Williams) as one of star-crossed romantics from different social classes. Barnum becomes a relentless social climber, consumed by being accepted by the upper crust. At first he attempts to do this with his circus of “freaks” including Charles Stratton (Sean Humphrey), better known as Tom Thumb, a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a trapeze artist (Zendaya), and more. Later, he places his ambitions on Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson/Loren Allred), an opera singer known as “The Swedish Nightingale.”
Barnum’s legacy is a complicated one. Thankfully the film minimizes the presence of animal performers, and focuses on the human one. But it walks the tightrope (sorry) between wanting to embrace him as a dreamer and innovator as well as hold him to task for the way he uses people to bring his obsessions to life. It never manages to do that, since the breathless pace and sentimental instincts feels like those moments are glossed over. This film should have focused on the performers instead, or even his business partner (Zac Efron) who seems to see Barnum for the person he truly is, and it would have had the space from its subject to paint a more complicated picture without losing the audience. It doesn’t help that the writing is as tired and cliched as imaginable, checking off every narrative moment because it feels like it has to rather than because the story demands it.
But then The Greatest Showman will segue into a musical number and all will be forgiven for a few minutes. While I wasn’t humming the songs on my way out of the theater, they did a more than adequate job of entertaining me during. The numbers are also stylishly performed and the choreography is mesmerizing. When it can be seen. The greatest sin of this film is that some of the quick-cutting that editors use to hide bad fight scenes are used during the dance moments, and it was always distracting, taking me out of the moment and reminding me that I am watching a film, with all of the artifice that implies. The Greatest Showman has a ton of potential, but it is almost entirely squandered. Madagascar 3 keeps the crown of best circus movie.
The Greatest Showman opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.