Movie Review – The Greatest Showman
Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, Phineas Taylor Barnum is one of the founders of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, also known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It particularly earned that title after it merged with the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1919. This movie shows us Barnum’s early days as a boy, but it mainly focuses on the time between him buying his museum in 1841 to him creating the traveling circus around 1865, which in this movie isn’t portrayed in real-time. Barnum goes from opening his museum to creating the traveling circus in what feels like less than two years. This is in part because we never see his two daughters age any more than that. In an original screenplay by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Condon (Chicago), this movie isn’t necessarily purporting to be a faithful biopic of Barnum’s life. This movie is more or less using Barnum as an archetype to tell a pretty generic story about classism and racism.
Barnum was a poor boy, born the son of a tailor who made clothes for the rich but was never rich himself. Barnum’s father died when he was young. His mother had already passed, so Barnum was an orphan who lived on the streets, having to steal or beg for food. Eventually, he got a job working for the railroads. This sustained him until he was able to marry the love of his life.
Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine) co-stars as Charity Hallett, the daughter of a rich man who has a mansion on Long Island, out in the suburbs or in upstate New York somewhere. Her father actually hired Barnum’s father when she was a little girl. Despite her father’s disapproval, she liked Barnum because he made her laugh and opened up her imagination and the idea of chasing after dreams and having a more exciting life than that of the stuffy, New York socialite. She ends up marrying him and having two daughters.
At first, Barnum struggles financially to give his wife the life he promised her, but she’s not materialistic. Yet, Barnum feels that her father always looked down on him and so he has to prove that he’s not what her father thinks. Barnum feels he has to prove he’s just as good, if not better. By the end, Barnum has to realize that wealth isn’t everything. It’s all about family. A familiar refrain in rags-to-riches stories or biopics about people who rise to acclaim or fame.
When Barnum was living on the streets, he was shown kindness by a person with a facial deformity. Later, he gets the idea to have his museum feature people who are considered “freaks” or outcasts. First, Barnum finds a little person whom he calls Tom Thumb, played by Sam Humphrey. Next, he finds a Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle. We see him recruit a whole bunch of sideshow performers, including a pair of trapeze artists and the Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. The movie portrays those people as real oddities and curiosities, which is purposeful because the movie is also about the racism and bigotry toward these so-called freaks.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really allow us to get to know these oddities and outcasts. The movie does a roll-call where it runs down and name-checks all these people, but we learn nothing about them. This movie whizzes by so fast. The pacing works, but an extra 15 to 20 minutes to delve into the oddities would have been better.
Again, the movie isn’t a strict Barnum biopic, but a huge aspect of his life is the idea of him perpetrating hoaxes and humbug. This movie barely brushes against that idea. The truth is that Barnum’s so-called freaks might not have been real. Tom Thumb might not have been a real little, grown-man, but a child who was pretending to be a man. The Bearded Lady might have been a man with fake breasts, or a woman with fake hair on her chin. Barnum was exposed to be a con-artist to which this movie only gives lip-service.
All that being said, this movie is a musical and the musical numbers here are extremely well done. Director Michael Gracey stages and choreographs each song in such fun, zippy ways. Each contains such amazing movement and visual feasts. Each musical number is extremely better depicted than anything in La La Land (2016). All the songs lyrically are extremely better than anything in La La Land, which is odd given that the same songwriters from La La Land wrote the songs here, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
“A Million Dreams,” which shows how Barnum fell in love with his wife, and “Rewrite the Stars,” which is the song involving Zendaya and Zac Efron on trapeze, are the two best sequences. “Never Enough” is the best performed song vocally. Rebecca Ferguson is seen on-screen singing it but the real vocals come from Loren Allred, a contestant from The Voice.
Rated PG for thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.