Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
You guys, the Mamma Mia 2 trailer premiered before The Greatest Showman, and if that movie isn't the most exciting slice of glitter pie that cinema has to offer in the coming year, then I'll eat my bedazzled hat. I can't wait to hear what obscure ABBA songs they're forced to pick and see how many clunky lines they can shove into Cher's mouth. The fact that a two and a half minute trailer for a movie that will almost certainly be a beautiful disaster excited me more than The Greatest Showman should probably say something, but this review still isn't a negative one. Let's jump into it!
Hey Hugh Jackman, it's nice to see you without mutton chops.
The Greatest Showman is a highly fictionalized (read: lies, all lies) telling of the life of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), which has opted to take his life full of exploiting "freaks" and enslaving animals and turn it into a wholesome movie about one man's dream to bring happiness to all people in spite of the haters. And here I thought The Disaster Artist was going to be the most thoroughly sanitized whitewashing of a real person's horrifying tendencies I saw in theaters this year.
Anyway, whatever. It's a movie musical. We don't get enough of them for me to go around boycotting any of them, and since when have movies actually been good with biographical material? So Barnum is struggling to make ends meet for his born-into-privilige-but-unwaveringly-supportive wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their two ruthlessly adorable daughters. Through a bizarre combination of white savior-itis and feeling on the fringes of society, he decides to create the circus, a spectacular show of derring-do that highlights the outcasts of society including a little person dubbed Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a brother-sister duo of African-American acrobats (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), what seems to be Kate McKinnon in ghost makeup, and basically the entire cast of Newsies with either wigs or goop on their faces.
Seriously, these freaks are hot as f**k.
I don't want to be a bummer, so I'm gonna start with the worst thing about The Greatest Showman and work my way up into what I secretly kinda love about it. Here goes: The plot is totally boring. Anytime we're forced to spend any prolonged time with Barnum and his drama (or Michelle Williams, who is totally wasted in one of the most reductive, passive female roles in years), it begins to slide back into being a sludgy, nuance-free biopic, and nobody wants that.
Honestly, these parts can get really dreary. They feint toward depicting Barnum as a lying, thieving scumbag but aren't willing to commit to that interpretation, and the constant pulling back leaves a lurching feeling in your stomach. And the scenes at the circus aren't much better, almost entirely forgetting to explore the inner lives of the circus performers who form the central theme of accepting yourself for who you are. There is a halfhearted stab at the idea that being black makes you just as Other as being a dogboy in America in the 1800's, but this is not a political movie. It's not really an anything movie, jamming a square peg of reality into the round hole of upbeat musical mayhem.
There hasn't been a tone so ill-suited to biographical material since the sitcom Heil Honey, I'm Home!
But one good thing about The Greatest Showman is that it speeds though its plotty bits in strokes as broad as Fifth Avenue. Sure, that prevents engagement with any of the characters but who needs that, this is a musical extravaganza! Now, the music itself is... fine. Songwriters Pasek and Paul have proven themselves to be very capable at crafting catchy pop Broadway numbers (they wrote lyrics for La La Land, provided the best song to Trolls, and had a recent stage hit with Dear Evan Hansen - the former and the latter presumably being the reason this movie finally got the green light after seven years), and they provide the same service here.
None of the songs are incredibly memorable, matching the hollowly inspirational themes of the plot with rousing riffs on Rihanna, Mumford & Sons, and other pop subgenres that are invariably upbeat. The litany of interchangeable, on-the-nose "believe in yourself" lyrics can be a little numbing until they throw in a bit of variety late in Act 2. Plus there's a supposed opera number is hilariously off base, but god I've missed musicals. There's no genre more suited for frothy, nutrient-free material, and here's the thing: the choreography is not to be missed.
Yeah, there's a reason I still seem excited about this movie after all that complaining.
The framing, movement, and design of the production numbers is sublime. The choreography, which in no way represent what the actual circus looks like but who cares, is a tremendously athletic, physical approach to dance that I haven't seen in quite some time. It's electrifying, blending perfectly with the percussive, in-your-face foley work that pulls elements from all around the scene into the musical sphere. Every frame comes alive with color and light in a way that's just busy enough to not drip into Moulin Rouge excess while still featuring the painterly backdrops and fantastically unreal settings that turn 1800's New York into a lurid fairy tale.
The dancers rush full bore into dazzling feats, to the point that I was worried that Michelle Williams' double was gonna have her head whipped right off, but there's also a gloriously unsubtle approach that revels in just how Big the emotions of the songs are. Possibly my favorite moment takes place on a rooftop where rows and rows bedsheets are invariably hung out to dry (the beds in the Barnum household must be numerous and bare), where Barnum and Charity pull off a gravity-defying reverse dip into the air, the movement of her dress perfectly matched by the flapping of the sheets in the wind.
Almost every sequence is knock-your-socks-off spectacle, but the number "Rewrite the Stars," although the song feels the most like a reject from Smash season 2, features incredible trapeze work and the Efron/Jackman duet "The Other Side" has a minute and a half of beautiful, minuscule choreography that takes place while Barnum is just sitting at a barstool. Big or small, The Greatest Showman paints a tapestry of music and feeling that's well worth your time.
Jackman obviously is a massively talented theater performer, and it's nice to see him actually have fun in a big screen musical, but the standout here is probably Broadway diva Keala Settle, a big personality with an even bigger voice. Plus Zac Efron can move, and he even sings OK! (I think he took lessons between High School Musical 1 and 2). Everyone and/or their doubles is actually massively talented, and it's a pure pleasure to see them make their magic, sugary spectacle. Even if you have to suffer through the rest of the movie to get to it.
TL;DR: The Greatest Showman is a terribly bland approach to the material, but the production numbers are unspeakably gorgeous, and it's not like there was any other reason to go see it anyway.
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