The Greatest Showman (2017)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

A passion project for its star, Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman is a spectacular, romantic crowd-pleaser, from start to finish, full of terrific dance performances and memorable songs. It's heavy on spectacle and light on history, but by the time the end credits roll, it doesn't matter. It achieves what P.T. Barnum would have wanted: to leave the audience with a smile on their faces.

As a child, Barnum has big dreams for the future... to earn enough money to buy a specific mansion on a particular lane, to marry his sweetheart, Charity, and to prove himself a visionary to the world. He's nothing more than a tailor's son, and an orphan after his father dies of illness... but left on the street, he continues to dream, and accepts kindness from a misshapen social outcast, never realizing that encounter will change the rest of his life. Many years later, after he rises in society through the railway, he (Jackman) returns to marry Charity (Michelle Williams). Poor as church mice but happy, they have two wonderful girls... and then he finds himself unemployed. His skeptical wife goes along with his desire to open a museum of oddities, but when ticket sales prove poor, inspired by his daughter's comment that he needs "live" exhibits, Barnum starts collecting "peculiar" people, and creates the world's first circus.

A shrewd man with an eye for the best acts, Barnum recruits tall men, Siamese twins, albinos, a bearded lady, a cheeky dwarf, and a beautiful areal artist (Zendaya), but while the lower class adores his "circus" (thus dubbed after a scathing article in the local newspaper), the upper class continues to snub him despite his expanded fortune. So, Barnum approaches a young, talented writer-socialite, Philip (Zac Efron) and asks him to run away with the circus. But his own ego, his encounter with a glamorous Swedish musician (Rebecca Ferguson), and the prejudice of the locals threaten to destroy his dream.

Since I had such a splendid time in this film, which is an exquisite and loving tribute to art itself, I was amazed to walk out of the theater and discover the critics seem to hate it. I can't imagine why, unless it's due to the negative depiction of the press, with a critic playing the antagonist determined to see Barnum fail, accusing him of exploitation and fraud. That may be a little too on the nose for critics snubbing the film for being a crowd-pleaser. Or perhaps it's because with every other movie except this one, we're asked to leave history behind and embrace whatever version Hollywood puts forward, but the modern criticisms of Barnum are a little too frown-worthy to work around (animal abuse, exploiting people for financial gain, etc). Maybe they don't like Barnum being a likable, flawed man with big dreams... or glossing over some of the less-nice things about him, but I didn't mind. The film isn't a straight up history about Barnum; it's symbolic, an expression of life, love, acceptance, self-acceptance, family, and friendship. It's about finding your place in the world, never giving up, and going for what you want even if society frowns at you for it. Does modern society cringe at the idea of "traveling freak shows"? Yes, and for good reason... but that's not the point here and should not be a detracting force in such a magnificent film.

The costumes are gorgeous, the filmmaking is stellar, the musical numbers are breathtaking and the directing is flawless. The vocal talent involved is unparalleled, and there's not a missed beat throughout (the CGI animals do stand out, but it's better than using real ones!). The script keeps a good pace, the songs are well placed, and the cast is marvelous. Jackman makes Barnum charismatic and likable throughout, even when the audience doesn't like his decisions; he has an excellent supporting range of vocal and acting talent (the kids especially are wonderful), and the true standout song (This is Me) is a memorable, catchy tune that may garner Oscar attention. I wanted to be entertained, I wanted to be moved, I wanted to be touched, and The Greatest Showman did all of that and more. I can't wait to own it.

Sexual Content:
Lots of cleavage-bearing / skin-tight circus costumes (leotards, burlesque fashion, etc). A woman makes a pass at a married man (he turns her down); a scandal results from a photograph of a woman kissing a married man.
 
Language:
Two uses of d*mn in lyrics.
 
Violence:
A man strikes a child across the face hard enough to leave a welt; protesters throw things at circus performers, get into a brawl with them, and become physically violent.

Other:
Drinking, and conning people.