The Greatest Showman (2017) Review
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
While the genres of action, drama, comedy, horror, sci-fi, and fantasy are some of the main staples in motion pictures (then and now), the film genres of musicals have been a strong contender in history of cinematic filmmaking. While not uncommon in today’s world, musicals (for the most part) utilizes the vocal talents of singing songs (and sometimes dancing numbers) to tell much of the film’s story; most of which are pivotal scenes in the narrative. The height of musical feature films occurred during the Hollywood’s yestyears (some taking place during Hollywood’s “golden age”, sharing the limelight of all the glitz and glamour that studio had to offer in both acting talents and in the talents behind the camera. Some of the movies have become both iconic within this movie genre as well as timeless classic in the history of movies. These include films like the technicolor marvel of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the sweeping tale of The Sound of Music in 1965, the memorable Gene Kelly feature Singin’ in the Rain in 1952, the horror-comedy styles of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, and the lighthearted romantic comedy of Grease in 1978. Even at the start of the new millennium in 2000 began and other genre were becoming more popular and prevalent in patron moviegoers, the musical genre still produced hits with movies like the colorful jukebox pop-song filled Moulin Rouge! in 2001, the weirdly macabre Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007, and theatrically bold Les Miserable in 2012, and the whimsical fairy tale Into the Woods in 2014 just to name a few. Additionally, musicals haven’t been just limited to live-action as many animated cartoon theatrical pictures get their chance to take center stage with musical notes and showstoppers, finding Disney Studios as a prime source for this lyrical entertainment spotlight with such memorable ones as The Little Mermaid in 1989, Beauty and the Beast in 1991, The Lion King in 1994, and Frozen in 2013. Hollywood’s most recent musical hit surface at the end of 2016 with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The film, which starred Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, was essentially a “love letter” to the old Hollywood musical and garnished much praise (from both fans and critics); proving that this film genre was still appreciated and value by current viewers and that no one could resist that special “x” factor of singing and dancing in a musical. Now, the latest musical theatrical film from Hollywood makes its way to the silver screen as 20th Century Fox and director Michael Gracey present the movie The Greatest Showman; loosely based on the real-life tale of renowned circus creator P.T. Barnum. Is it lights, camera, and “sing” for this musical showstopper or is it all song and dance and no show?
Being born the son of a struggling tailor, Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) didn’t have an easy life, struggling to find his way in the world, while repeatedly reminded of his station in society and the hardships that come with it. Determined to make something of himself, Barnum makes a reasonable life with Charity (Michelle Williams), a girl from a wealthy family, who soon welcomes two daughters in their lives. After being dismissed by his current employment, Barnum sparks to the idea of a freak show in the middle of New York City, opening a museum of curiosities that’s soon home to outcasts of all kinds, eager to showcase their “uniqueness” to a horrified but intrigued society. Within time, Barnum builds his empire, achieving his dreams and soon taking the young Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a bored playwright who falls in love with trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), under his wing as an apprentice as well as showcasing esteemed singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) in a quest to achieve legitimacy within the upper echelon of society. However, Barnum’s desire for personal mainstream acceptance is a dangerous one, one that causes harm to his beloved business and to his family.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While I’ve stated many times that I prefer movie genres are action, comedy, fantasy, and animation, musicals features have always had that certain “x” factor that I like. Maybe it’s the story being told in the musicals (like in Les Miserable or Into the Woods), or maybe it’s the theatrical costumes and show stopping dance numbers (like in La La Land and in Moulin Rouge!), or even just the catchy musical songs that are played to tell powerful scenes of laughter, drama, or emotion to convey what the character (or story) is wanting to express. Of course, the classics musical films are exactly what they are “classics” and are even hard to reduplicate within the either vocal performances (I mean how many times artist / singers have done “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz) or in the scope and thematic retelling of the feature itself. Still, musicals are atypical “theatrically bold”, dazzling us (the viewers) with what’s on-screen or in the song that’s being sung. Heck, who doesn’t love hearing “Let it Go” from Frozen or “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and understanding the meaning message by its lyrics. For me, it usually comes down to the song (usually a poignant one and the big dancing numbers (i.e. costumes, make-up, choreography, etc.). As for what my personal favorite musical is? Well, it would definitely have to be Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera. Everything about the movie from the elaborate costumes, to the lavishing sets, to the actors / actresses, and the iconic and beautiful songs from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Broadway hit, I just love that movie. What can I say… I have a taste for the theatrics (if you know what I mean).
Naturally, this brings me back around to the film The Greatest Showman. I remember hearing a lot internet buzz about this movie, especially when they were announcing a lot of the film’s cast (i.e. Jackman, Williams, Efron, etc.). Then there was the film’s marketing campaign, which the film was being presented as a musical drama, drawing some similarities to how La La Land was featured. Then, of course, I saw the film’s two trailers and immediately fell in love with the movie, which showcased all the dazzling costumes and snippets of the dancing numbers to be featured in the film as well as hearing some of the movie’s songs, including the now famous “This is Me” (sung by The Greatest Showman actress Keala Settle).
Okay, so I’m about to get a bit personal, so please forgive me. With a sense of eagerness and anticipation to see this movie, I looked forward to seeing The Greatest Showman during it’s opening weekend and was going to take my grandmother to see it with me as she was a huge fan of Hugh Jackman (even went to see one of his plays in New York City and got a picture taken with him). Sadly, as some of you (followers and fellow bloggers) might have known from one of my earlier posts, my grandmother passed away in December 2017…. several days before The Greatest Showman was going to be theatrically released and I was gonna surprise her with a ticket to see it with (for her Christmas present). Still, I went to see the movie and I still had the ticket for her. I actually placed it the ticket on the seat next to me, so my grandmother could still watch with me (in spirit). Though I did see the movie during it’s opening weekend, the loss of my grandmother weighed heavily on me during Christmas time (and the days that followed for her funeral) and I really couldn’t bring myself to write my review for The Greatest Showman without thinking of her. This explain why I’m writing my review for this movie so late, so I hope all my readers could forgive me.
Anyways, now I finally have that chance to give my review for The Greatest Showman. What did I think of it? Well, I liked it. While the film does gloss over certain things, The Greatest Showman succeeds in being a dazzling spectacle with it’s visual flair, solid acting, and musical number highlights. Like Barnum, it’s wasn’t absolutely perfect, but it will definitely put a smile on your face and charm your entertainment theatrics appetite.
The Greatest Showman is directed by Michael Gracey, whose previous works include The Genie from Down Under 2, Cubbyhouse, and Double Vision (all as some form of a visual effects artist / supervisor). Given his “visual” background, Gracey seems like a perfect choice in bring Barnum’s story to life, bring the spectacle of Barnum’s creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus show (and the lives of its star attractions). The film’s screenplay, which was credited to Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, shaping The Greatest Showman’s story around Barnum’s early days of him creating his curiosity shows, which ultimately transforms into a circus show of live animals and performances. In this molding of the story, Bicks and Condon makes the movie a true “rags to riches” tale, centering around one man’s dream of a life beyond his own station. To that effective, they succeed, with Gracey framing The Greatest Showman in that light and providing enough reinforcement in the notion that anyone, regardless of your monetary standing in society, can achieve their dreams. Of course, this makes for a good thematic message for the movie (almost inspirational if you think about) as well as the idea of “being different” in society; something that many can draw parallels to the recent events in today’s world involving hate crimes. Again, this notion is reinforced in the film’s presentation and ultimately works, with Gracey (along with Brick and Condon) creating a very strong underling message in a movie that any viewer can relate to.
Of course, one of the biggest highlights of the movie is the songs that are performed in The Greatest Showman. The film itself, of which its being toted as such, is a musical feature first and foremost and does succeed in being a lyrical journey to in Barnum’s tale, especially thanks to La La Land’s duo songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for penning the movie’s songs. The song themselves have a bit of a contemporary feel to them and are quite catchy in their respective parts (in both their runtime and in the context of the movie’s narrative) as well as all the vocal performances, which are top-notch and solidly “in-tuned”. Of course, the big song that many will instantly love is “This is Me”, which was heavily promoted in the film’s marketing campaign and who is performed actress Kela Settle. It’s bold, catchy, and quite moving if you listen to the lyrics; especially when brought into the context of accepting oneself as being “different” and being proud of it. It’s no wonder that “This is Me” won a Golden Globe for Best Song and was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Song. My personally favorite would have to be “Never Enough” or “Rewrite the Stars”. Both songs are different from each other (one being a powerful solo performance and the other being an upbeat romantic duet), but they both have meaningful messages and are quite memorable in the film’s story and in its own soundtrack. Lastly, the song “The Greatest Showman” is an another big-rousing number that book ends the feature, giving a viewer that warm fuzzy feeling of the film’s spectacle enjoyment. There are songs featured in The Greatest Showman, which are really good, but these are the ones that truly standout in the movie (at least to me). Suffice to say that musical songs in the film are fantastic and are definitely a treat to hear throughout the film’s runtime.
Aiding in the film’s musical numbers is the overall look and feel of the feature, which makes The Greatest Showman an absolutely gorgeous and colorful endeavor; a fitting motion picture for being labelled as a musical feature. A lot of the technical and physical filmmaking aspects of the film are outstanding, filling each frame and scene with a dazzling array of color and / or movement that will enchant a viewer’s optical sense. In conjunction with the film’s melodic songs, the movie’s choreographing performances are fantastic and entertaining, filled with energy, excitement, and fitting perfectly in-tuned with the songs that are accompanied with them. The various costumes in The Greatest Showman are another highlight, producing some very extravagant and colorful pieces of clothing from Barnum’s circus “freaks” and performers to the more lavishing costumes outfit attires of the upper society. Thus, I have to mention the movie’s costume designer Ellen Mirojnick for her eye-catching outfits in the movie. Additionally, the film’s cinematographer (Seamus McGravey) should also be commended on his work on The Greatest Showman, providing some very beautiful cinematic shots with the usage of camera angles and lighting effects. Other noteworthy members of the crew (that should be mentioned) are Debra Schutt (Set Decorations), Laura Ballinger (Art Direction), and Nathan Crowley (Production Design), which lend their talents in effort in making the movie’s world (from concept to movie set pieces) to life. Lastly, while the film’s showstopper songs are great, composers John Debney and Joseph Trapanese provide a good background soundtrack for the feature, adding that layer of music to convey joy, sadness, and elation in various parts. All in all, The Greatest Showman’s overall showmanship (songs, dancing, costumes, and cinematography are definitely the absolute best and is in an area of which Gracey shines, not burns in this cinematic musical journey.
Despite all the glitz, glamour, and the musical numbers, The Greatest Showman does have a few drawbacks that keep the film from reaching its desire goal of regal achievement in movie cinematics. One of the more noticeable is in its narrative pacing. The film’s runtime clocks in around one hour and forty-five minutes (105 minutes), which keeps the movie running at brisk pace. While some might argue that it is a good thing (i.e. not being bloated or bogged down with unnecessary content), The Greatest Showman seems a bit light on substance when the main spotlight is not focuses on Jackman’s Barnum. This creates a somewhat problematic approach to the film as the certain areas feel rushed and sometimes have lack context substance as if the movie is “missing out” (or “skipping” out) on some story plot points and / or character building moments. This, of course, makes Bicks and Condon’s screenplay cause many of the supporting players of the feature to be shortchanged, but more on that in the paragraphs below. Suffice to say, The Greatest Showman is more of a musical spectacle (glitz and glamour) rather than a dramatic bio-pic “life of time” of P.T. Barnum and those around him.
Additionally, the movie, being on a more lighthearted kid-friendly type of musical, The Greatest Showman seems to create a certain “hero worship” in the character of Barnum. Of course (just like a lot of movie that are based on important people and / or events), the movie itself is “loosely” based on P.T. Barnum’s early years of how he started from a lowly pauper to a successful performer with his circus show. Unfortunately, the movie takes more of a “artistic” license in retelling Barnum’s story, portraying him with a “heart of gold” in the narrative as the likeable hero. While that’s unnecessary a bad thing (Jackman does sell that persona masterfully), the actual P.T. Barnum was not as kindhearted, with evidence pointing out some of his great folly’s (almost devious) things he did in his career. This includes Charles Stratton, who was featured in the movie as the dwarf “General Tom Thumb”. While movie places an emphasis on Barnum meeting (and persuading) Stratton join his show, the real-life Stratton was then fours years of age (able to state that he was eleven years old) and was drinking wine by the age five and smoking cigars at age seven for the public’s amusement. Another devious thing that Barnum did in real life, which wasn’t mentioned in the movie, was of exhibition of Joice Heth, a blind and almost paralyzed elderly slave woman, who Barnum stated was 161 years old and was George Washington’s former nurse. Heck, when Heth did eventually pass away, Barnum even showcased a live autopsy showing of her body for paying customers. As you can see, there were reasons why Barnum was called “the great deceiver” by many. However, much like what I said about Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, the factual truth versus the fictional movie can be a bit a jarring between the two, but the overall presentation of the feature masks the story’s altercations to the true-life tale being told. At least, it did for me. However, if you think about, The Greatest Showman would probably be something that the actual Barnum would be happy with, masking the deception of truth with glitz and glamour of a musical. A curious thing to think about and to discuss with others.
The cast in The Greatest Showman is (collectively) a talented selection of actors / actresses (both known and unknown) that populate the feature, with some giving some really good performances in both major and minor roles. Perhaps the biggest (and brightest) star that shine immensely in the feature would definitely have to be actor Hugh Jackman, who plays the film’s main protagonist character of Phineas Taylor Barnum. As a viewer can tell right from the get-go, Jackman, known for his roles in Les Miserable, Real Steel, and many of the X-Men movies (i.e. X-Men, The Wolverine, and Logan) seems to be having an absolute blast in portraying Barnum, the original ringleader of the famous circus in history. The actor has been well-known for his skilled craft of showmanship and theatrical talents on the Broadway stage and he gets to fully display that side of him in this movie. Jackman certainly does carry the weight of the feature on his shoulders, not just being the central character of the movie, but also showcasing his singing and dancing talents from onset to conclusion. As I stated above, while the debate over how accurate The Greatest Showman portrays Barnum (reality vs. fiction), no one can deny that Jackman is fantastic in the movie as P.T. Barnum. Basically, to say that Jackman is the undisputed star of The Greatest Showman is simply an understatement.
As a compliment to Jackman’s Barnum is the character of Charity Barnum (P.T.’s wife), who is played by actress Michelle Williams. Known for her roles in My Week with Marilyn, Blue Valentine, and All the Money in the World, Williams does share the spotlight in certain times with Jackman, even having her own solo song to sing (i.e. “Tightrope”) in the film. However, as talented as Williams is, her character is somewhat underserved in the grand scheme of the narrative. There could’ve more to her, but Bicks and Condon settle with Charity being the love / supporting wife to Phineas as well as being subplot in the beginning and ending of the movie. Still, at the end of the day, Williams’s acting talents outweigh her character development flaws and does look good with Jackman when there together on-screen. Thus, it sort of breaks even with the character of Charity Barnum.
While Jackman and Williams are the “older” characters you root for in the movie, actor Zac Efron and actress Zendaya are most definitely the “younger” ones that you wish they spent more time on. Efron, known for his roles in High School Musical, 17 Again, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, plays the character of Phillip Carlyle, a bored playwright who becomes Barnum’s partner (a composite character that’s partly based on James Anthony Bailey), while Zendaya, known for her roles in Shake It Up, K.C. Undercover, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, as Anne Wheeler, an acrobat / trapeze artist who joins Barnum’s Museum show. Interestingly, while he commonly plays the “cocky / pretty boy” in many features of late, Efron returns to his “High School Musical” roots in this movie, proving to be a much better fit (both in likeable and memorable) in this role than playing a “douchebag” character like in 2017’s Baywatch. Alongside Efron, Zendaya proves to be a likeable character and does shine throughout the film in her acrobat movements on the high bar (Zendaya did her own stunts for the movie). Again, both are respective good in their roles and do play up the star-crossed lovers that faces hardships in their courtship (due to the society’s viewpoints of people of color), I just wished that the movie would’ve spent more time on them. Heck, there could’ve been almost an entire movie just on Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler and their youthful romance relationship (I would’ve paid to see that). In the end, their characters get shortchanged a bit, but the talents of Efron and Zendaya prove effective in making them memorable in The Greatest Showman. Behind them is actress Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the character Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish singer known as the “Swedish Nightingale”. Ferguson, known for her roles in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Life, and The White Queen, is great in this supporting character. She definitely looks the part and acts the part of the famed singer. She has a minor subplot in the movie and does prove to add an extra layer of conflict in the film’s second and third act to Barnum. Thus, Ferguson’s Lind is great within the context of The Greatest Showman. Also, for those who didn’t know, Ferguson didn’t do the singing for Jenny Lind as singer Loren Allred provides the vocals for her that.
Move along down the line in secondary supporting characters are the characters of the Lettie Lutz (the “Bearded Lady” and Charles Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”), who are portrayed by actress Keala Settle (Ricki and the Flash and The Big C) and actor Sam Humphrey (Neighbours and Jeremy the Dud). Of course, Settle stands out more (of the two) with her singing “This is Me” in the movie. Still, both are the only two members of Barnum’s circus performers that get the most screen-time and are memorable beyond their physical appearances. Interestingly (as a fun side-note), while Humphrey’s Stratton is based on a real-life person, Settle’s Lutz is a composite character that’s partly based on Josephine Clofullia and Annie Jones (both of whom played the “Bearded Lady” in Barnum’s American Museum. Behind them is actor Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards) the found, editor, and publisher of the New York Herald James Gordon Bennett. Sparks role is small, but is still effective, especially in his cool and calming demeanor persona he portrays when on-screen.
Much of the rest of the character (mostly the circus folk in Barnum’s show) are mostly background stock-like characters that fill the scene within the physical appearance or have very minor parts in the feature. This includes actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Get Down and Aquaman) as Anne’s brother W.D. Wheeler, actor Tim Hughes (Blood Bound) as Strong Man, actors Danial Son and Yusaku Komon (making their debut in this film) as Chang and Eng Bunker (the “Siamese Twins”), actor Daniel Everidge (Brooklyn Sound and Jessica Jones as Irish Giant (The “Lord of Leeds”), actress Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Detective Chinatown 2) as the Chinese blade-specialist Deng Yan, stuntman / actor Luciano Acuna Jr. (Tracers and The Get Down) as Fedor Jeftichew (the “Dog Boy”), actor Jonathan Redavid (Gangster Land and The Tourist) as Frank Lentini (the “Three Legged Man”), choreographer / actor Shannon Holtzapffel (La La Land and Happy Feet) as Prince Constantine (the “Tattooed Man”), actress Gayle Rankin (Frank the Bastard and GLOW) as Queen Victoria, actor Byron Jennings (Lincoln and True Story) and actress Betsy Aidem (Irrational Mom and Margaret) as Charity’s parents (Benjamin and Hannah Hallett), and young child actresses Austyn Johnson (Kevin Can Wait and The Post) and Cameron Seely (Madam Secretary and The Jim Gaffigan Show) as Barnum’s daughters (Caroline and Helen Barnum). The acting ability of these actors and actresses are good, but again are mostly for decoration and / or a minor plot point in a few scenes in the movie.
As an interesting side-note (for anyone who didn’t know), Barnum’s circus show, which became “Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth”, eventually merged with “Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows”, with the Ringling Brothers purchased the company following Barnum’s death in 1906. After merging the two shows together (dubbed “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus”) in 1919 becoming larger (filling the size of stadiums) within its traveling to different venues. Unfortunately, after a weak attendance and high costs in operations, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed on May 21st, 2017….146 years after Barnum created it. I just find it interesting that The Greatest Showman was to be released on the same year that Barnum’s circus closed.
The story of P.T. Barnum comes alive in a colorful and lyrical way in the musical film The Greatest Showman. Director Michael Gracey’s newest film tells the tale of how Barnum’s famous circus extravaganza show became a reality, facing the trials of showmanship and the pitfalls of bringing something “different” to society. While the movie seems a bit rushed in its narrative and lacks substance at various parts (story-wise and character development), the film makes up for it with its vibrant set-pieces, flashy choreography, catchy musical numbers, meaningful message of acceptance, and its likeable cast, especially within Jackman’s performance. Personally, I liked this movie. Although, I was expecting a bit more story, the film itself was everything I was hoping it to be and met my expectations for a dazzling musical work of showmanship. Thus, despite its flaws, The Greatest Showman receives my “recommended” stamp of approval, especially to those who enjoy musical films. Whatever you take away from this movie (good, bad, or indifferent), The Greatest Showman succeeds in being melodic showstopper of glitz, glamour, and art of show business. To quote Barnum “The noblest art is that of making others happy” ….and that’s what many will find within this feature.
4.1 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: December 20th, 2017
Reviewed On: April 4th, 2018
The Greatest Showman is 105 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl