In the same year that Disney’s live action musical retelling of Beauty and the Beast dominated the box office, 20th Century Fox closed out the year with an original musical from the songwriting team behind La La Land. It’s rare for film musicals to not be based on a tried and true Broadway production and when there’s no stage equivalent, they tend to at least be a jukebox production (Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe). In other words, this original film musical adaptation of the life of P.T. Barnum is as unique as the stars of his sideshow.
There’s no denying that The Greatest Showman is lavish and visually stimulating. The turn of the century setting and Circus esthetics play off each other and audiences are in for a visual treat. However, spectacle alone isn’t enough to make a great film and for all the scenic eye candy, it all feels a little too familiar, mostly harkening back to elements from Moulin Rouge! And other circus films like Billy Rose’s Jumbo.
In terms of story, the show takes many liberties with the biography of P.T. Barnum in an effort to make him more sympathetic and inspiring. In the film, he is portrayed as a young pauper with big dreams. He finds unique individuals and creates a show around them where they can celebrate their individuality. However, the character is not without his faults, with an unquenchable thirst to prove himself among his aristocratic colleagues.
Barnum is played by Hugh Jackman, a Fox Legend of the modern era for his work in the X-Men film franchise and a trained actor in musical theater who has tackled such roles as Curly McLain and Jean Valjean. His delivery is captivating and he’s essentially the modern James Cagney, capable of playing any genre and doing them all exquisitely. He seems very at home in musicals and I hope his career delivers more of them.
Michelle Williams (Oz the Great and Powerful) plays his partner in life and she’s a delight, as she is in all things. This was my first time hearing her sing and she provides some very angelic tones. Her character is given a solo called “Tightrope,” one of the more subdued numbers in the film and a very memorable one at that.
The marketing has largely focused on two of Disney Channel’s biggest alumni being paired together, Zac Efron (High School Musical) and Zandaya (Shake It Up). Efron has matured since I last saw him in anything and while his role isn’t that big of a departure from what he’s demonstrated before, it’s nice to hear him sing again. Zendaya’s previous acting and singing didn’t leave an impact on me, but in this film she demonstrates a wider range and a side I hadn’t seen before. Her voice on the duet “Rewrite the Stars” is powerful and she demonstrates remarkable growth in this performance, with the exception with a character breaking Beyoncé reference in one of the final frames.
In terms of music, there are a lot of fun and danceable songs on the soundtrack. The songs were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who served as lyricists on La La Land and also contributed their talents to the NBC series Smash. The music all sounds very modern, mostly with pop sensibilities (and one Country-esque song). While this disparity between setting and styles works well in the theater in shows like Hamilton, it doesn’t translate as well to the screen. The choreography also matches the modern sounds, creating a few unintentionally laughable moments when these 19th century personas start to pop and lock like they’re teaching Darrin’s Dance Grooves.
The film’s main message is to celebrate what makes you unique and not let the world change you to fit a mold. All of the stars of Barnum’s circus underscore this theme, while the forbidden interracial relationship between Efron and Zendaya is the most prevalent aspect of it. The best song on this topic, “Come Alive,” sounds like the music from a Disney park parade and if the Disney/Fox deal is finalized, I would be shocked if it doesn’t end up in the parks in some capacity.
The film starts with a flash of the 1950’s 20th Century Fox logo, symbolizing that the nature of this film is a throwback despite it otherwise feeling very modern. There are two scenes where animals perform with the rest of the troupe, where they are so obviously computer generated it’s painful to watch. I can only assume this was by design so as to not have any controversy from the activists who were typically outside of performances by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus before Feld Entertainment cancelled the tradition. For a lesson in how to make CG animals look real, see The Jungle Book.
The Greatest Showman is far from perfect, but I hope fans of musicals will take the time to see it in theaters. Despite a flawed main character, some lackluster subplots, and dichotomous songs, there’s more to love than hate in this CinemaScope extravaganza that is equally an homage and a modern musical. It was designed to inspire viewers to celebrate the things that make them unique and that’s a note that 2017 should go out on.
I give The Greatest Showman 3 out of 5 top hats.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.