The Greatest Showman has to compete with the likes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, Downsizing, and Pitch Perfect 3 this holiday season. The main thing really setting it apart from these other popular, hugely marketed films is its original feel-good song and dance numbers. Unfortunately, this is also one of the only things it has going for it. The film is loosely based off of P.T. Barnum and the start of his circus, featuring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, and Zendaya. The choreography was impressive, and it was pretty to look at but the character and plot development overall were disappointingly shallow.
Feel Good Songs and Great Choreography
It’s no surprise that this film earned a golden globe nomination for best song as its original soundtrack was rife with catchy show tunes. There were several charming numbers that would appeal to the heart of any musical theatergoer, and it was refreshing to see a new musical that wasn’t based first on a stage production. The musical genre is fast disappearing in films, but with the level of songwriting and choreography that was executed in this film, it doesn’t have to. Director Michael Gracey also took advantage of an already whimsical concept, the Circus, and really built on that in the choreography. The result was some really beautiful moments that were wonderful to look at not simply because of the dancing, but because of the whimsy, it set alight in the setting as well.
Zac Efron Shines & Michelle Williams is Sidelined
Hugh Jackman shines naturally in this gregarious role, but what’s more surprising is how well both Zac Efron and Michelle Williams hold their own next to him in the spotlight. Hugh Jackman already has the incredible vocal chops for this role as we know from his role in Les Miserables; however, Zac Efron has really come a long way from his High School Musical Days. Zac Efron’s character is introduced as a high society playwright taken on to help Barnum’s circus gain more credibility and notoriety, and Zac Efron holds his own when he goes toe to toe with Jackman in a fun, quirky duet, “The Other Side.”
Michelle Williams is also surprising as Charity Barnum as she is charming, graceful, and has a beautiful voice; however, her character is frustratingly sidelined throughout the film only brought out to be featured at Barnum’s origin, and during her own feature, “Tightrope.” She does an amazing job with what she was given, but it was so frustrating to see yet another female character given no agency. It’s implied that her character has a huge influence on Barnum as she is his inspiration, yet the film really detours not only Barnum’s attention from her but our attention from the circus as well, to follow a side plot with a prestigious singer, Rebecca Ferguson’s character. This sidetrack took precious time in an attempt to crank up tension in the film, but it ultimately just feels like a waste of time.
The Greatest Disappointment
Taking a topic like the circus, especially at a time when people who were different were considered, well, circus freaks, offers a unique opportunity to provide commentary on society and say something important about inclusion and acceptance. The bitter pill to swallow is that this film tries so hard to do that. It almost feels like the film had intended to be so much more than it actually ended up being, but there was so little story and character movement that it falls flat on that end. It felt like a much longer film that had been cut down to fit within an hour and 45 minutes, probably to make the film more accessible to families with young children.
Additionally, the focus of the film is pulled in so many different directions, very little actually ends up being said. You’ve got the tension between the circus and the social acceptance of the public, contending with the romance between Efron’s character and Zendaya’s Trapeze artist, also contending with the supposed marital tension between Phineas and Charity Barnum, all culminating in the possibility of financial disaster for the circus which would ruin them all. Unfortunately, because the film attempts to treat these all equally rather than truly focusing on one, it was unable to successfully integrate them together. This is this film’s greatest flaw.
Ultimately, it’s a great show for those moviegoers wanting just that: a show. It doesn’t make any waves and offers a fun, feel-good family film for the holidays. The music and choreography are fantastic, but it could have done and been so much more.