Alright, let’s get the harsh stuff out of the way first. This film is NOT about the life and times of the self-made 19th-century showman, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist, Phineas Taylor Barnum. The Greatest Showman is a romanticize “follow your dreams,” movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum’s superego; specifically focusing on Barnum’s creation in a little venture that would eventually become the world-renowned Barnum & Bailey Circus. Now if you’ve paid any attention to the film’s marketing, you might’ve gathered that historical authenticity has been not so subtly replaced with a brand of magical realism common in many musicals of Hollywood. The “twist,” (I suppose) is that while the film takes place in the late 1800’s, the music and dance is anachronistic with an emphasis on a more contemporary arena rock/pop music sound. In many regards, The Greatest Showman is almost identical to Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001), except for the fact that The Greatest Showman is good. Director Michael Gracey has made a wonderfully shot and brilliantly executed cinematic cabaret of charismatic actors, mellifluous vocalists, and ebullient dancers. This production is one of those rare occasions where the film’s alteration of its source material both heightens the viewing experience but also contributes to the ideals and vocations of P.T. Barnum. The Greatest Showman may be leaning more towards the “fictional” end of historical fiction, but it’s still an impressive feat of cinematic entertainment that’s sure to instill a feeling of childlike wonderment in your heart long after the credits stop rolling.
As you might’ve guessed The Greatest Showman’s plot follows the watered down life story of P.T. Barnum. In life, Barnum coined the phrase, “a sucker’s born every minute,” and much of his fame and fortune came from his stint as an impresario for hoaxes and attractions of an “unconventional” nature. Hugh Jackman’s character never once uses Barnum’s most famous motto, but I suppose that wouldn’t be the most paragon thing to come out of a “likable” protagonist’s mouth. They still managed to make Jackman’s Barnum a con artist with unparalleled powers of persuasion and manipulation; which is fitting when you consider how Barnum was known as the “Shakespeare of Advertising,” and whose marketing tactics are still largely used by modern advertisers, snake oil salesmen, and politicians alike! Jackman’s Barnum is charming, industrious, and just want’s to give his family the prosperous life he never had by entering showbiz, which makes him thoroughly likable throughout the film, though at times Jackman’s infallibility can come across as being a little too unrealistically glamorized. I would’ve been more aggravated at the “Disneyfication” of the story’s source material but then again, the real P.T. Barnum was known for putting on family friendly version of popular plays and historical retellings; and now you know where Disney’s secret to success originated. The rest of the plot is unfortunately pretty simple and predictable if you’ve seen more than five feature film in your lifetime, but one should note that this IS a movie musical first and the “story” is more of a way to string the song and dance numbers into a coherent set of sequences. That’s not to say that the story or its presentation is bad, both handled well and at no point insult your intelligence; it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort was put into every facet of this production, and the final product is a testament to that.
There are quite a few things The Greatest Showman does incredibly well, which is only made all the more impressive when to take into consideration that this is Michael Gracey’s directorial debut. When the camera’s in motion the cinematography’s smooth and fluid but still feels sharp and precise which makes for a very satisfying ocular experience. There where some segments so expertly shot, edited, and synced to the music that at numerous time I gasped out loud, much to my fiancé’s amusement. And speaking of amusement, there are some truly impressive vignettes of human abilities. The choreography’s excitingly fiery and diverse with multitalented performers of physical and musical expertise. Put all that together with an outstanding set of original songs by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese, and you’ve got a pretty damn good cinematic adaptation of the “hot-dad” version of P.T. Barnum’s superego. That being said, it is a wee bit silly seeing Huge Jackman’s portrayal of a man whose primary cinematic fault is that he’s a little too committed to his dream (of profiting off the exploitation of social outcasts, endangered species, and the differently abled). I can’t fault the film too much on overshadowing the more shady business practices of P.T. Barnum to strengthen the movie’s messages on acceptance, confidence, and finding strength in unity, but it almost seems like Jackman’s Barnum is going for straight up sainthood. The Greatest Showman is a movie that’s more about empowerment, following your dreams, and embracing the misunderstood quirks that make us who we are against the dismay of the more close-minded and outwardly cynical members of society. The Greatest Showman may not be the greatest representation of the real P.T. Barnum or his Circus, it’s a feel-good movie whose primary goal is to razzle-dazzle its audience, and it does so masterfully.
The Greatest Showman is as far from a dramatic character piece as one can get and I’m sure that it will rub some audiences the wrong way, but that would defeat the film’s ultimate purpose of bringing smiles to its spectators. It’s a film that clearly knows what it is and who it’s for; a bombastic romanticization of the ideals and spirit behind P.T. Barnum told through the lens of an 21st century circus extravaganza. The song and dance routines are exquisite in every aspect and keep the film chugging along like a tip-top locomotive and is worth the price of admission on their own. The Greatest Showman captures that extravagantly over the top energy and presentation that bade Barnum & Bailey’s circus shows world-renowned and will be sure to bring out a sense of horripilation and joy from which we honestly could all benefit from. The Greatest Showman is currently playing at the Regal Davis Stadium 5 theatre on G Street in downtown Davis.