There’s already a musical about PT Barnum, so why didn’t they just make a movie of the musical Barnum? Because they wanted to have popular rock songs for today’s audience, but the songs in The Greatest Showman aren’t memorable enough to do the heavy lifting the film asks of them.
The Greatest Showman has the right message but it makes the songs do all the work. Not an unreasonable expectation for a musical but they feel particularly thin here. Barnum not only shows kindness to people labeled “freaks,” but he celebrates them and shows the world their value. Looking for acceptance extends to Barnum himself remaining an outcast in upper crust society no matter his success, but it’s only superficial. The film even dabbles in racism and social justice but really needs more than a few minutes between songs to build up to that.
It’s interesting how Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) used a business coincidence to provide collateral for his first loan, and how he mastered marketing with signage and viral tactics. Major moments happen with no buildup so they feel arbitrary, not inevitable.
Barnum’s wife Charity (Michelle Williams) doesn’t have enough to do but reassure him that she’d be happy in poverty and chastize him for working too much. Maybe the real Charity Barnum wasn’t that involved in the story.
Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) becomes Barnum’s business partner and has a relationship with trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya). She knows 19th century America won’t accept them but the worst it gets is Carlyle’s father is mean to her. I’m not saying this has to be the 12 Years a Slave of post-emancipation racism, but at least go as deep as West Side Story.
The songs aren’t bad but they’re not great either. Opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) has a powerful voice but Never Enough is not a song I remember enough to hum back to you. This Is Me is an empowering anthem. It’s catchy in the moment but fades soon after.
The choreography has some inspired moments. Certainly seeing Jean Valjean and Troy Bolton perform a duet is thrilling. Choreography involving live animals is impressive in two bookend numbers.
If you’re home for Christmas Break and The Post isn’t out in your city yet, you could do worse than The Greatest Showman. I mean, Moviepass will make the mediocrity sting less, but there’s so much to watch on streaming and VOD, The Greatest Showman just isn’t the only show in town.