In 19th century New York, would-be impresario PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dreamer from impoverished roots, is trying to find the magic ingredient that will draw crowds to his struggling museum. He hits upon the notion of exhibiting human “oddities” – people with unusual features or unusual skills. Enlisting playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his partner, Barnum assembles a troupe of marvels, including acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and little person Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). The crowds and the money start pouring in, but the respectability that Barnum needs to impress the upper crust parents of his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) still eludes him.
The Greatest Showman‘s only goal is to entertain the hell out of you, and it pursues it with single-minded determination and all the razzle-dazzle it can muster. The film uses the career of the real life PT Barnum as a loose framework (this is very much a “print the legend” situation) but make no mistake, this is not so much about Barnum as it is about Jackman. The Greatest Showman is a showcase for the all-singing, all dancing Boy From Oz, and seems to be a kind of mission statement: a reminder that, while the world might know Hugh as a certain clawed mutant marauder, his heart belongs to the theatre.
Indeed, both film and star are so determined to make us smile, and the proceedings are so packed with light, colour, and spectacle, that it’s just about enough to make you not notice the shaky foundations the whole shebang is built upon. Dramatically speaking, there’s not a whole lot going on; while a happy ending is rarely in doubt when it comes to this sort of thing (Moulin Rouge, clearly a stylistic influence on first time director Michael Gracey, being an obvious exception), even the illusion of risk is absent here. Character relationships are poorly defined, be they between Barnum and his family, who he gently neglects but keeps in well-heeled comfort, or Barnum and his would-be protege, Carlyle, whose mentor/student dynamic never really clicks.
The exception is the budding romance between Carlyle and Anne, which flies in the face of the racist social conventions of the time, but the success of that subplot is mainly down to Zendaya – in a work packed with bombast and noise, her talent and charm shine through cleanly, and she is the ensemble’s clear standout, the magnificently-voiced Keala settles being a close second.
Thematically, The Greatest Showman takes a stab at individuality and freedom of expression, the old “follow your dreams” bit, but fails to push in any interesting directions. The obvious point that, while many of the people working for him have limited options when it comes to employment and lifestyle, the white, male, able-bodied and comparatively wealthy Barnum chooses the showbiz world, is never made, and the chorus of oddities are basically background artists in service to Barnum’s aggrandisement. To be fair, Barnum’s story is Barnum’s story, but there’s a more deft and more interesting way to tell it, and given that the film has sifted through the facts of the real Barnum’s life, picking and discarding to fit its chosen form, there’s plenty of material from which to craft a more balanced and aware story.
But there’s music and dancing and explosions of colour, a menagerie of (mostly) CGI animals, a fantastical roster of astonishing people and things (sadly, no Feejee Mermaid), and plenty of rousing, feel good songs – “This is Me” isn’t going away any time soon. Still, for all that it entertains in the moment, The Greatest Showman feels like a missed opportunity.