Hollywood, for the most part, works in a cyclical nature. Take for instance, the movie musical. Usually a handful of years pass, people start getting vocal about missing them at the cinema. Then, usually an award darling or Broadway adaptation appears on the screen, seemingly to answer the call. In 2016 it was Sing Street & La La Land. In these cases what happens next is more than a little obvious. The following year a big budget musical pops up to cash in on renewed interest. The Greatest Showman, unfortunately, is that cash-in.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the name P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman doesn’t work as the best introduction. It’s a glossier and happier viewing of the somewhat contentious (and altogether more interesting) life Barnum led. The film follows him from a penniless young man, to orphan, to plucky dreamer, to unemployed to successful swindler/businessman. Just in the first 30 minutes. As jarring as this may be, it makes as it wants to get to Hugh Jackman, as quickly as possible.Things settle down for a spell when Barnum falls into the opportunity to live his dream of opening a museum dedicated to oddities of the world. It isn’t profitable, so he seeks out those different and cast off by society to headline a show guaranteed to get people talking. Along for the ride in his venture is playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron, doing what he was born to do), trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle). All the while, his wife Charity (a criminally underused Michelle Williams), raises their 2 daughters.
If the inclusion of Zac Efron is a tad surprising or unexpected, take a deep breath. Hugh Jackman, the paragon of charismatic actors, is shown up by the former Mr. High School Musical himself. In a scant three minutes, he proves that maybe it’s him who should be in the lead role. High praise for a middling amount for screen time. What’s more, he teams up with another former Disney star in Zendaya and threaten to burn a hole into the screen. It’s a shame they’re so good together, as everything else falters in comparison.
There are fits of energy and whimsy stewing underneath that occasionally makes it’s way to the surface. Yet it’s short-lived, drowned out by the next overproduced “show-stopper”. The Greatest Showman wants to wear the audience down, hoping they will submit to the larger than life spectacle presented in front of them. Instead it fizzles before it starts. Compounding issues is a general lack of drama. Well, ok, there is some drama. Just that it’s the variety of which can conveniently be fixed within a minute or two. Once or twice may be ok. An entire movie built on such a set-up is madness.Inevitably this brings to things the songs, the lifeblood of any musical. Eschewing the traditional form of musical numbers that would follow suit with a work like this, lyricists Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Oscar winners for La La Land) go for more modern, poppier numbers. What comes across is some weird demon child of West Side Story and Burlesque. A few of the songs do break this barrier, due to catchy takes on traditional fare. Out of them, “This Is Me,” is sure to be the most popular, likely taking on a life of it’s own as a celebration of those different and marginalized by a cruel world.
As much focus as Carlyle and Anne receive, the rest of the cast get pushed to the side. Any sense of hardships or hours toiling away perfecting the show and the craft of those involved is thrown out the window. Instead, everything happens through happenstance, with only one character feeling the brunt of mismanagement. Late in the game a song references “years and years,” yet what comes across the screen seems to have transpired in a matter of weeks, if not months.The Greatest Showman is the truncated version of a better musical. A story like this requires room to breathe, something first time director Michael Gracey seems afraid to embrace. He constantly robs the film of true momentum. Characters waltz in and out of the film, depending on their importance to Barnum. In the place of nuance is a breakneck pace, one most likely employed to get viewers out of the theater on a high note, before logic or reason starts to take over.
Maybe, in the end, the film is something that Barnum would have been a fan of. It’s quick, rather inoffensive, colorful and features a handful of elements that are sure to cause people to suggest it to friends. Of course, months from now, when it’s almost forgotten, there will at least still be the songs. And in a musical, that counts for something, right?