The Greatest Showman (2017)
The impossible comes true
In the 1800s, a poor, young orphan named Phineas Taylor Barnum (Ellis Rubin) fantasized of a bigger, more adventurous life with his secret sweetheart Charity (Skylar Dunn), whose wealthy family looks down on him. As adults, Phineas (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (Michelle Williams) marry, settling into a life with their two daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), even if the disheartened ‘P.T.’ felt as though they weren’t living the fairy-tale life they once dreamed of.
Turning the entrenchment of his desk clerk job into an opportunity, Phineas takes a loan and buys a museum, soon latching onto the idea of using live people as his key attractions — ‘oddities,’ such as ‘The World’s Shortest Man’ Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), ‘The Bearded Lady’ Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya).
As Barnum’s ‘circus’ grows in both popularity and notoriety, his ambitions flourish as he charms upper class playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) into the business, eventually pulling renowned Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) into his mitts for a massive U.S. tour. With Phineas’ eyes in the sky, both his immediate and festival families begin to question their place in his crazy life and Barnum’s integrity as a whole.
In case you didn’t get the memo, musicals are back, with the appetite for feel-good, warm-hearted spectacles at an all time high. Heck, only hardened cynics would turn away from the sight of this newest entry, The Greatest Showman (2017), which is headed by the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting ‘triple-threat’ Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables (2012). Is he any good? You betcha. I mean is there anything this man can’t do without grace and commitment? It’s safe to say that Jackman fans will relish every moment of his latest extravaganza.
The large ensemble appear to be having a great time, too, with Keala Settle, Ricki and the Flash (2015), making the most of her screen-time, clearly giving it all she’s got as The Bearded Lady, who belts out the lead in ‘This Is Me’ and provides some low-key sass as she grows in confidence. I probably would’ve liked to see a bit more done with the character of Charity, as Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn (2011), is pretty much relegated to a sounding board for P.T.’s dreams and concerns. Zac Efron, Hairspray (2007), continues to demonstrate that he’s not just a handsome face, but also a worthy star, pairing up perfectly with Jackman and then with love interest Zendaya, who annoyed the crap outta me in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), but actually does fine here.
Musically, The Greatest Showman is all rather clean, sleek and modern sounding, which may irk those who crave some sort of historical accuracy with their soundtrack, but if that’s what you’re after you’ll quickly discover that you’re in the wrong cinema. If it worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), why not here? And look, I don’t know all the facts about the real-life P.T. Barnum, but I can’t imagine the famed showman would disapprove of the many flourishes made throughout his story (alterations that sidestep his more controversial and exploitative tendencies), let alone the all-out musical numbers designed by acclaimed La La Land (2016) duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
There’s the big opener ‘The Greatest Show,’ with its foot-stomping akin to Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You,’ the enchanting to-and-fro love song ‘Rewrite the Stars,’ in which Zac Efron and Zendaya bounce around on a trapeze set, and, probably my fave number, the big ballad ‘Never Enough’ sung by the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ Jenny Lind (Loren Allred, a contestant on The Voice U.S., supplying the vocals). There’s even a beautifully choreographed bar-top tap-dance between Efron and Jackman that’s performed in the midst of their duet, ‘The Other Side.’ All these sequences are realized with aplomb through the dynamic teaming of debuting feature director Michael Gracey, choreographer Mathieu Leopold, production designer Nathan Crowley, Dunkirk (2017), and the always-superb cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals (2016), whose lensing brings vivid colors to big dance moves.
With the trailers leaning heavily towards the film’s coming out anthem ‘This Is Me,’ timing seemed serendipitously right for its Australian release, given the much heated gay marriage debate that divided the nation. Perhaps the biggest surprise, then, is how little the narrative delves into themes of acceptance, being different or celebrating life in general, the flick, instead, choosing to keep things relatively light and airy, the whole movie essentially about letting one’s head float in the clouds, but reminding us to always keep two feet on the ground. It’s basically a vanilla ice-cream cone on a summery day — sweet, enjoyable, smooth, disposable and if that sounds like a criticism, well, you don’t know how much I love ice-cream.
See, despite the lack of thematic inquisition in the breezy script by Jenny Bicks, Rio 2 (2014), and Bill Condon, Dreamgirls (2006), the near two hour running time manages to hit all the right notes by means of catchy pop tunes, a spectacular design, enjoyable characters and a relatable enough story. It’s a great opportunity to be whisked away by feelings of romance, nostalgia and hope — basically, it’s the perfect Christmas movie, which, I’m sure if it weren’t for that little juggernaut called Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), could’ve been formally released earlier in December.
Although The Greatest Showman isn’t gonna work for pessimistic types, history buffs and pop/ Auto-Tune haters, there’s plenty to appreciate if viewers allow themselves to kick back and simply enjoy the fluff. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a great time with this one and if you can’t accept that, well, as the song goes, ‘this is me!’
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie