The Greatest Showman review – A great musical with a good message

Posted on 3 January 2018
By Andrew Siddall
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The Greatest Showman is a musical that tells the story of businessman P. T. Barnum as he rises from nothing to his creation of a spectacle the world had never seen before, and the birth of show business and origins of the circus.

Set in the 1800’s, we see a young Phineas Taylor Barnum growing up, work with his tailor father, fall in love with his future wife Charity, and have to survive on the streets. It’s a very fast paced set up for a movie and unfortunately leaves out a lot of development, giving us only a small idea of what happens before the main part of the story.

The pacing is the biggest problem throughout the film, with many of the characters quickly agreeing to be a part of the circus and plenty of large time jumps that skip any real connection to the characters. With a very quick trip to London and fast relationships thrown into the mix, this film has a lot of subplots in such a short amount of time (its only 1 hour 45 minutes including credits!) It would have been better if the film were longer with more time dedicated to character development.

Hugh Jackman, coming off the success of Logan (2017), takes the lead as Barnum and the role fits like a glove. Any Wolverine fans will likely be surprised by his ability to sing and dance like the greats, demonstrated perfectly here with the majority of the dance numbers involving him front and centre of a star-studded cast. He oozes charm and showmanship and his passion for the project really shines through, being involved with the production since the beginning.

Four-times Oscar nominee Michelle Willaims plays the grown up Charity, with their children played by newcomer Austyn Johnson as Caroline and Cameron Seely as Helen. Although they feature prominently throughout the film and provide the idea and inspiration for Barnum, they don’t have much to do or enough material to work with.

The other main characters that appear are Zac Effron’s fictional Philip Carlyle, who helps to establish the circus nationwide, and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Zendaya as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. Although their story does raise some issues with the society of the time, it does take the focus away from Barnum and the circus and could have benefitted from being its own film.

There is a moment in the film where the story unfortunately becomes predictable with the introduction of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s Rebecca Ferguson as singer Jenny Lind who captivates Barnum with her incredibly impressive voice. She plays her part well, but again, doesn’t have much to work with.

Like many musicals, this is an ensemble piece with many characters of all shapes and sizes taking part. Only a few of them get some real screen time, such as Keala Settle’s bearded-lady Lettie Lutz and Sam Humphrey’s dwarf Tom Thumb. The problems they face play a big part in establishing the attitudes of the 1800’s. Public laugh at them, protesters call them freaks. But one line from an unamused critic states that the circus is “a celebration of humanity”, giving the movie a message that isn’t always found in a film like this: be yourself and don’t let the world tell you what to be.

The toe-tapping songs are written by Oscar-winning lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land (2016) fame, and they are incredibly catchy. They provide a positively uplifting mood that proves you don’t need to be dark and dramatic to be entertaining. It’s almost impossible to leave the cinema without humming your favourite. Our one is The Greatest Show.

This film also features the feature film debut of commercial director Michael Gracey, who is the reason the film is a musical, rather than a traditional biopic as it was originally intended to be. He does what he can to make the most of the sets with sweeping camera pirouettes around each of the dancers and breath-taking wide angle shots, letting the audience soak everything in.

Every frame, from the costumes to the colours, is made to look like an old-fashioned circus poster, giving the film a unique feel and aesthetic. The use of silent movie cards during the titles is a great call back, and it’s brilliant seeing the old cartoon 20th Century Fox logo fading into a monochrome version of today’s modern one. It is beautiful how they use eye-catching costumes to brighten up a rather dull world such as Barnum’s scarlet tailcoat jacket.

The effects used look good, if sometimes a little glossy. They’re used sparingly but sometimes can be overpowering, with one scene involving Barnum catching a train that looks unfinished. The animals look fine and only appear when needed, such as elephants and lions, but they don’t quite reach the same uncanny level as Disney’s award winning Jungle Book (2016).

The stunt work is pretty impressive when used, but it can look a little fake when CGI is used to try and enhance a scene. This isn’t a bad thing, allowing impressive feats of acrobatics that look stunning on screen and wouldn’t be allowed with today’s health and safety rules.

This film has a lot to do, but the main point that it tries, and succeeds, to get across is that message of being yourself and embracing what makes you unique, with a fantastic sequence featuring all of the acts joining together to sing ‘This is Me’, providing a really uplifting and empowering moment. It says a lot about the prejudice and exclusion of the time, while also staying just as relevant to today’s world, and it handles the subject really well.

Overall, this is a very joyful and entertaining movie with a lot to say and do, but not enough time to do it all. It’s a good, if slightly predictable story, that gives an interesting insight into the life of P. T. Barnum and the obstacles he overcame in an attempt to put on the greatest show.

Purple Revolver rating: 3.5/5. A great performance.