Movie Review: The Greatest Showman.
A facile story bolstered by amazing songs and visuals may just be my surprise favorite of the year.
The Greatest Showman is a simple story that bends and breaks history at a whim, but charms and engages you the whole time. I went into this movie expecting a movie so bad it was good. I left the movie thinking it is a movie so good that I didn’t care about the bad parts. This film totally bastardizes the life of P.T. Barnum, but that is incidental to the whole. At the end you have a musical that blends classic elements with modern sensibilities and traditional story-telling in such a way that you can enjoy the film as a whole.
The Greatest Showman (2017).
Phineas T. Barnum is the poor son of a tailor who falls in love with the daughter of one of his father’s clients. His imagination and drive win her heart, but he cannot give her and their children the life of dreams he promised. Conning his way into a fortune, he opens a menagerie of marginalized people, “freaks” by common standards, and promotes his circus into a national sensation.
Not a History Lesson.
Don’t walk into this movie expecting a biopic on the life of P.T. Barnum. This movie bends and blends and fractures his life out of all proportion. This film exists to build on his overlying zeitgeist: that of delivering wonder and merriment (facts be damned!) It has touchstones from Barnum’s life, but they are warped out of any resemblance to the facts. Barnum may have approved, since the end result is a mesmerizing and joyous thing.
Song and Dance.
As a musical, The Greatest Showman delivers. The songs and choreography are exhilarating. This is the second movie of the year that I wanted to own the soundtrack to, the first being Baahubali 2. The songs are decidedly modern, in line with pop music of the decade. The choreography is akin to Cirque Du Soleil blended with a hip-hop music video. It all adds up to high energy, astutely choreographed, catchy sequences that you’ll remember long after you leave the theater.
Prince of Humbug.
The story of The Greatest Showman is very straightforward. The trajectory is of a man who aspires to greatness, attains it, loses it due to personal failings, and has to learn what to truly value. You can pretty much call out the next arc of the story aloud and never be wrong. The strength of Michael Gracey’s film is that this simple structure never hampers the sheer enjoyment of the piece.
The characters of The Greatest Showman are intense and memorable. If you thought Hugh Jackman‘s turn in Les Miserables was a fluke, guess again. This guy has musical chops, and he’s frankly wasted in anything else. Zac Efron surprises in his role as Barnum’s protege, delivering solid acting and excellent musical numbers. Zendaya still has trouble expressing a range of emotions as an actress, but she has the vocal range and physicality to make her musical numbers pop. The supporting cast is deep and strong, such that not a single musical number was forgettable or wasted.
Director Michael Gracey takes a premise that should be laughable and makes it memorable. The music and choreography are excellent, but the cinematography is no slouch either. This film feels like a classic musical, similar to The Music Man, blended with modern sensibilities. The attention to detail in the settings and the period is astute. This is a high-flying, bombastic period piece.
There is quite a bit of CG, but it is used to create shots that have impact. One sequence has a solo occur while the circus performers whirl around the character in slow motion. It’s fantastic. A few of the tricks, like CGI elephants, are readily apparent, but they are employed in spots where they don’t distract from the action. The practical effects layer on top of the digitized in a way that is exciting. Zac Efron and Zendaya have a song about their socially taboo love that unfolds during rehearsal for a trapeze act. There are obvious digital moments, but also plenty of choreographed elements from both the stars and stunt players that makes the whole feel exhilarating.
The Greatest Show.
The Greatest Showman is one of my unexpected high-points of the year. I saw the trailer a scant two weeks ago and thought it would be a delightfully overwrought train-wreck. Barnum was a hoodwink artist, and this film is largely unfaithful to his biography. What the film does, though, is get his philosophy correct: sell people happiness, no matter how much you need to lie to them. The story is earnest and eager, filled with wonderful songs and breathtaking visuals. Your brain will try to pick faults, but your senses will be too carried away to register it. I found The Greatest Showman to be a vibrant, energetic, and skillful musical that lives up to the legacy of Barnum, despite all of the problematic elements of it. Frankly, I loved The Greatest Showman.