Sometimes the simplest films can be the ones that transport you to the farthest reaches of your imagination, sweeping you into a land of wonder and magic. A world so fantastical that anything seems possible, and for a brief time all your worries seem to disappear, making life feel whimsical and carefree. This scenario completely encapsulates Michael Gracey’s new film, The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as the real life entertainer P.T. Barnum, the man who invented the circus. For a life that large, you have to make an even larger film, and Gracey attempts to do just that. With help of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the men behind La La Land and the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, the team is here to give Barnum’s story a larger than life turn of the musical kind.
In The Greatest Showman, we’re taken through a fantastical version of the events that led to Barnum creating the circus. But in this version of Barnum’s life, the world is a wondrous place full of limitless possibilities, interesting people, and grand musical numbers, as we see him go from a poor young boy who with large dreams to a down on his luck father who wants the best for his family. For a man who seems to have everything one should need, it’s not quite enough, and Barnum finds that he feels trapped in a world that’s left him and his dreams behind. But when an unexpected turn of event alters his life, Barnum takes that opportunity to finally grasp what he’s always wanted to do: entertain. With everything to gain and nothing to lose, P.T. Barnum recruits a group of downtrodden group of people who are different from everyone else, and together they put together the world’s most unusual show for all to see.
Under Gracey’s watchful eye, The Greatest Showman flourishes in a unique way that’s really quite fun to watch. The film’s musical numbers are large and sweeping, and yet at the same time, feel incredibly intimate. Every song, every dance move, and every motion the camera makes feels fine tuned for the exact emotional reaction the audience needs to feel, and for a first time director, what he’s able to do behind the camera is incredibly impressive. He puts so much energy into every frame that you can’t help but feel wrapped up in the story and the musical numbers, and I found myself tapping along to it few times throughout the film. From a visual standpoint, the movie is always pleasant to look at, and Gracey does his best to really make the world feel alive. Musicals can be incredibly tricky business, and it’s great that he’s able to handle that so well.
It’s just unfortunate that Gracey’s limited time behind the camera makes the story falter a bit underneath the weight of everything else. The Greatest Showman moves at a very brisk pace, clocking in at just around an hour and forty five minutes, but unfortunately that’s about fifteen minutes too short on the story side of things. While you can fall in love with the music and the characters, the movie brushes past the obstacles that Barnum faces like they’re nothing. Instead of letting the tension build, within a scene most of the problems the characters face is nicely tied up, and we’re on to the next scene. The movie could really use some breathing room for the audience to really feel the tension that certain characters face, but because the film is going for that warm, feel good style that many musicals have, it would rather be fun and light than dour and dark. It’s an obvious choice, and I understand why they feel the need to keep things quick and light, but it seems to be a rather large disservice to the characters and the story at hand. Life isn’t always pretty, and while we see glimpses of that from various sides, it would have been nice if the movie had decided to dive deeper and really make the audience feel the pain and frustration the characters dealt with.
Thankfully, even though the movie falters on the story side, the actors and the music easily make up for that. Hugh Jackman is incredibly endearing as P.T. Barnum, which should come as no shock because Jackman is always likable in whatever he’s in. It’s great to see him getting to throw around his musical chops on-screen for a change, something many forget he can do after his seventeen year-long stint as Wolverine. Jackman really carries this film on his shoulders, and honestly if he wasn’t the lead, the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well. Zac Efron likewise brings his incredible talent to the screen, and he and Jackman work very well together. The duality of their personalities and choices makes for an intriguing friendship, though I do wish we could explore that complexity a bit more. It’s just too bad that Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson don’t get more to do in the film, as both are good in their respective roles, but they’re not given enough meat to really standout in any way. Michelle Williams on the other hand does get some wonderful work in, and shines in many of her scenes, including a wonderful solo song, but her story really doesn’t get to be explored much which is too bad.
But The Greatest Showman‘s biggest strength comes from its music, and boy is it fun to have a big musical like this back on the big screen. Every song is sweeping and fun, and instantly memorable. The film’s opening number, “The Greatest Show”, making the film explode on the screen in a big way, making it nearly impossible to match that later on. But it’s not without trying, as many of the songs throughout the film come close, with a duet between Jackman and Efron, aptly titled “The Other Side”, and the film’s most popular song, “This is Me”, coming incredibly close. Every song just hits you in the right way, feeling incredibly electrifying, feel good, and it really just puts a smile on your face. This really takes you back to the golden era of film musicals, and that alone makes the movie special.
The Greatest Showman is a very well acted and directed film featuring fantastic music, and an unsurprisingly great leading man turn from Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. While the story suffers from a real lack of conflict, you’ll be hard pressed to really be too frustrated as you get wrapped up in the joy that the film creates. The music is exceptional, bringing to life a long forgotten era of Hollywood back in a big, flashy way. This is the perfect holiday film for families to enjoy together as they’re out at the theater this weekend, and it’s safe to say the soundtrack is going to get a lot of play for many once you step out of the theater. At the end of the day, that’s the best endorsement a musical can ask for.