By Jack Dignan
For some, the Hollywood musical may look like a dying genre. For years now it’s struggled to gain the same sort of mass appeal that the latest blockbusters have, finding better life on the stage than on the screen. Creating a live action musical is hard, but creating an original live action musical is even harder. We don’t get many, and when we do, they’re more frequently an adaptation of a stage performance than a made-for-screen epic, so I cherish and look forward to new films such as The Greatest Showman or last year’s La La Land, which looked to open the door for more mainstream appeal.
While P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) was a real historical figure, and his life story is something that wasn’t made directly for the screen (although… more on that later), this remains an original musical through and through. Never before heard songs carry the weight of the film through its dazzling adventure of show business, crafting a musical experience yet to be seen or experienced in any other medium. This is further excited through the idea of Hugh Jackman in the lead, once again shedding his musical talents and having the time of his life doing so. The Greatest Showman was looking to be one to remember. And yet, it’s one of the more disappointing films of 2017.
The opening number of this film is great. And by great I mean really great. It shakes you to your core with a pounding start, intercut with retro title cards and shocking editing, grasping your full attention and kicking this film off with a bang. My friend turned to me straight away and said, “I already love this film,” a very reasonable response to such an impactful opening. Things were looking bright. If the film’s dance choreography from here on out was half as good as that opening number, we were in for an absolute treat, and while it’s certainly great, what follows this opening goes downhill fast.
P.T. Barnum’s on-screen life is a generic rise to fame story. Once fast-forwarding through his childhood, we catch up with him living an unfulfilled life with his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and two daughters, dreaming of something bigger and grander for his family. His attempts at success fall short. Nothing’s working out. But Barnum keeps on keeping on, and before long, he begins on an endeavor he knows the world will see as controversial. He creates what will go on to be the world’s first circus, where people of all shapes, colours and sizes are celebrated for their individuality and are allowed to get in the spotlight as opposed to hide in the shadows.
The Greatest Showman does a fantastic job at celebrating individuality and not shying away from people’s differences, embracing them for who they are and teaching the value of love and family, whether by blood or by circumstance. Its easygoing nature aims to please as many people as it can, following the story of an underdog who saw what the world refused to see, and in the context of the movie, the basic plot elements make for an inspiring story. However, they’re not the truth. It’s a skewed Hollywoodization of what really went down, painting Barnum as an influential figure and not the manipulative racist ego-maniac who starved, disfigured and publically paraded an 80 year black woman around for money.
Even if you look past this misrepresentation of how history unfolded, as difficult as that may be for some people (it’s certainly worth researching Barnum’s true nature before seeing this film, for he’s done some despicable and things in his life and certainly isn’t worth celebrating as a human being), the film just isn’t good. It’s a watered down skeleton of the truth, where the plot elements that are used range between severe underdevelopment and melodramatic ridiculousness. There’s no context or pre-emphasis on any of the plot elements. Everything feels under-explained and under-plotted, to the point where I found myself questioning why some characters, especially Zac Efron’s Phillip Carlyle, were even in the film.
The performances are fantastic, especially Hugh Jackman and Zendaya, but their larger than life personas are unable to save this misguided and empty musical from being the drab that it is. When the musical numbers are going down, there’s a lot of fun to be had. It’s hard not to smile or tap your toes at some of the numbers, especially my personal favourite song “The Greatest Show,” but the numbers all arise at important times for these characters, yet they’re never earned. “This Is Me” will no-doubt go down as the film’s standout piece, and what the song represents is fantastic, but it’s put to use way too early. You don’t get a true sense of the degradation or dramatic impact it should have because the film is in a rush to get to the next set piece as fast as it can.
Character is never once put in the forefront. Jackman’s charm may be enough to pull you through, but as much as I love the guy, his arc (or lack thereof) was two-dimensional at best. There’s an important sub-plot between him and Rebecca Ferguson that’s necessary to the plot, but feels tacked on and lacking in chemistry. The same can be said for a love story between Zendaya and Efron, who don’t share great on-screen chemistry and never get enough screen time together for you to buy into their slowly brewing relationship. A final monologue delivered by Efron goes beyond the already established cheesy dialogue and made me physically groan in frustration.
First time director Michael Gracey is a man to certainly keep an eye out for, but the script he’s working with is lackluster at best. He brings energy and excitement to the big screen, but it can’t save the fact that The Greatest Showman is all sub-plot without any focal point. Character redemptions come without any complications and plot elements that should’ve been a bigger focus aren’t given any justification or explanation. They continuously toss back and forth between whether or not Barnum’s show is fake or real, despite setting everything up as being real and then having the characters say it’s not, despite showing the exact opposite. It makes no sense.
La La Land, this is not. It’s a weird mix of modern music that tries to disguise it as a retro throwback, and the result is far from successful. The best way to experience The Greatest Showman is to listen to the soundtrack from start to finish while on your way home from work. The music is great. Heck, even the dance numbers are. It’s everything else, from the weird CGI backdrops to the intolerable story, that’s not nearly worth your time.
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