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Review: The Greatest Showman

April 9, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A musical biopic of circus founder P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), The Greatest Showman is a splashy and wildly entertaining film that works as pure spectacle.  It’s tightly edited, the songs are catchy, and the musical numbers are dazzling, all adding up to a complete package that is actually one of the most purely enjoyable films I saw last year.

Right from the opening sequence of Australian filmmaker Michael Gracey’s directorial debut – the phenomenal musical number “The Greatest Show” which is staged under the big top – we know that we are in for a captivating and eye-popping visual treat.

P.T. Barnum is at the centre of this lavish number, controlling the spotlights around him with every perfectly orchestrated dance move, until finally the camera circles around and fades through to show him as a boy (Ellis Rubin), staring into a shop window at a new suit and top hat that he can’t afford to actually buy.  It’s a wonderfully effective filmmaking choice, that allows us to transition smoothly into flashback, and shows us in reverse the rags to riches story that we are about to be told.

From here, we are shown his childhood as the son of a poor tailor (Will Swenson), who seeks a better life and has a natural knack for entertaining.  His adolescent years are shown over a musical montage, and when we move forward to him as an adult, he is working for the paper and struggling to support his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their two young daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely).  It’s here that Barnum decides to invest in buying an old museum of curiosities and, with the help of his business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), turns it into a live show featuring a selection of outcast performers, including the African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), the bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and a dwarf by the name of Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey).

There are a lot of things to like about The Greatest Showman, starting of course with the music.  The songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, who also did the music for La La Land, are incredibly catchy and help move the story along in a lot of really great ways.  The film received an Oscar nomination for the showstopping ballad “This is Me,” a rousing empowerment anthem sung by Keala Settle that plays over what is arguably the film’s most powerful sequence, when the performers are faced with rejection and have to stand up to a mob of violent protesters.

While The Greatest Showman does present a dramatized and heavily glossed over portrait of P.T. Barnum’s life, the film also doesn’t shy away from hinting at some darker themes.  It not only shows the racism and prejudice that existed at the time, but also raises some interesting questions about whether or not Barnum was exploiting his performers for personal gain.  When Barnum goes off to tour with opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), in an attempt to gain respect from those in the arts world who look down upon him, his own performers understandably feel like they are being kept in the shadows.

The film presents P.T. Barnum as a lavish huckster, a born showman who feels rejected by the society folks he desperately seeks to join, and finds a way to get rich by selling people the promise of escape and a better life.  Sure, the circus works as pure escapism, and is arguably exploitive at that, but Barnum understands the need that people have to be offered something bigger than themselves, and to get swept away from the world for a few hours.  It’s an illusion that he is selling them, but it’s an illusion that they crave, and in many ways he led the way for show business as we know it today.

Hugh Jackman’s performance is a big part of why the film works so well, and he’s clearly relishing the chance to show off his natural talents as a song and dance man.  Zac Efron has an immensely likeable screen presence, and it’s great to see him returning to the musical genre that made him a star in the first place.  Fellow Disney Channel alum Zendaya also does nice work here, and the two of them have good chemistry together in a well handled romantic subplot.

This is a prime example of a film that works extremely well at what it sets out to do, and another thing that I really appreciated about The Greatest Showman is that it makes the most of its highly economical 105 minute running time, and doesn’t waste a single second.  The film benefits from having the feel of a classic musical, and for what it’s worth, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more than La La Land, as it is free of the pretensions which plagued that film.

The Greatest Showman is rousing and uplifting, while also hinting at darker themes, working as both entertaining escapism and emotionally affecting drama.  It’s the sort of film that delivers exactly what you want from it, letting us escape the world for a few hours, and it provides all the proof we need that Hugh Jackman is one of our greatest entertainers.

The Greatest Showman is being released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.

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