- 20th Century Fox
Here is the thing about a big-screen musical based on the life of P. T. Barnum, with songs by the lyricists for La La Land, and starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Zendaya: By virtue of knowing those things I just wrote, you've almost certainly already decided whether or not you want to see it. In fact, you've most likely either purchased opening-night tickets for The Greatest Showman, or decided you don't even want to be seeing a movie in a theater where you might accidentally overhear it.
The movie musical is a genre for which there isn't much middle ground, and The Greatest Showman most decidedly isn't the kind of movie musical designed to win converts. In a story that is in many ways about cheesy crowd-pleasing theatricality, it embraces the whole concept of cheesy crowd-pleasing theatricality down to its core, beginning with its old-fashioned version of the 20th Century Fox logo. It is wildly successful at being exactly the kind of movie it wants to be, and the kind of movie it wants to be will irritate many people to tears.
It opens in the middle of a circus performance overseen by ringmaster Barnum (Jackman), before flashing back to his youth as the impoverished, eventually orphaned son of a tailor in 1820s Connecticut, who develops a friendship with a wealthy girl named Charity. Years later, the adult Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams) with big dreams of success, as he launches his "American Museum" of curiosities in New York. It only comes together once he starts recruiting people with unusual physical traits to become part of his show, simultaneously making him a popular destination for viewers and a popular target of media and public criticism for his "freak show."
There's little question that The Greatest Showman romanticizes Barnum as a dreamer, which is bound to rub those who know his real-life history of fraud and exploitation the wrong way. Jackman plays this fictionalized version of Barnum with a boyish enthusiasm far from his simmering Wolverine, while the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon turns him into a man desperate to be taken seriously by polite society, inspiring his efforts to "go legit" as promoter of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).
Indeed, the desire by outsiders to be accepted carries through much of the narrative. Efron plays Philip Carlyle, a scion of wealth who becomes Barnum's business partner, and who contemplates a romantic relationship with the circus's star trapeze artist (Zendaya) that is complicated by her race. Meanwhile, the rest of Barnum's performers—"bearded lady" Lettie (Keala Settle), "General Tom Thumb" (Sam Humphrey) and others—find themselves on the outside looking in as their makeshift family clashes with Barnum's quest to be welcomed in polite society. It all feels like the stuff of a Disney animated musical plot, full of misfits who just want the world to understand them, gosh darn it.
It's a tricky scenario, equating Barnum's inferiority complex with the battles of other characters against racism and intolerance, which is why it's fortunate that The Greatest Showman successfully distracts from its sketchy thematic components with catchy tunes and lively production numbers. The soundtrack is loaded with earworms by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Joseph Trapanese, from the old-school "I want" song "A Million Dreams" to the love song "Rewrite the Stars" to the anthemic "This Is Me." First-time feature director Michael Gracey keeps the musical interludes bold and energetic without being overly busy with his camera movements, allowing a chance for the choreography to emerge in more than rapid-cut snippets. The orchestrations might be more radio-ready than built for the orchestra pit, but those who groove to this kind of operatic emotional content will probably come away infatuated with the score.
And maybe that's the bottom line for a movie like this: Musicals by their nature assume a world that isn't really our own, and also assume there's an audience willing to accept that world. There's a level on which the moral is as simple as "the real greatest show on earth is friends and family," and maybe your eyes won't roll at that only if you're the kind of person who's likely to play the soundtrack on repeat for the next month. You know who you are.