By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
For those expecting a historically accurate biography of Phineas Taylor Barnum, this film is not the right one. If looking for a sugar-coated and vibrant musical telling of Barnum and the story behind his circus, then this movie will certainly please. P.T. Barnum became both famous and infamous for his circus and “freak show” during the late nineteenth century. His “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” featured exotic and wild animals, people with unusual physical traits, and people with special skills and unique talents. The traveling road show would eventually become the world famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus which would exist for two years shy of a century. Writers Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon, songwriters Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and director Michael Gracey have turned Barnum’s story into a fun and spirited musical that has a heartfelt message for humanity.
Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum, an energetic and smooth-talking showman who starts from poverty, but uses his wits and tenacity to become a huge success. As a child struggling to survive with his hard-working father, Barnum has always dreamed of success and these dreams get fueled by witnessing the comforts enjoyed by the wealthy. These dreams get fired up even more when Barnum falls in love with Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams). The two marry and eventually have two daughters named Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). The responsibilities of marriage and raising children further drives Barnum to start his circus show which features acrobats and people with unusual physical traits. The same drive that makes Barnum successful also puts a strain on his relationship with his wife and family and also threatens the relationship between him and the stars of his show.
Michael Gracey makes his directorial debut with The Greatest Showman and proves himself as a worthy filmmaker. Gracey, who has previously worked in visual effects and in the art department of a music video (Will Young Live In London) definitely shows his skills and talents with exciting and striking visuals, solid effects, and skillfully composed sequences to fit the musical numbers. Gracey’s inexperience as a director in slightly evident in a few dramatic scenes and some awkward pacing moments. Still, the movie does succeed in offering rousing and pleasurable entertainment that celebrates the excitement of going to the circus, but with heartfelt songs and exciting choreography.
The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon tells a very fictionalized version of Barnum’s story and turns him into an advocate for “the weird and strange.” Though the movie does lightly tread upon the exploitative nature of the business, this aspect is obviously the most sugar-coated part of the story. Barnum’s story in the movie becomes a mostly transparent cautionary tale for the trappings of success, but does have some beautiful messages regarding the humane treatment of people of all kinds. It also provides a source of empowerment for people who aren’t considered “normal” or conventionally attractive. I was also rather impressed with the wonderful songs in the movie. The La La Land songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written some truly enjoyable lyrics and music that give this movie even more heart and gusto.
This spirit and energy that fuel this movie would be weaker without the great performances by the cast. Michelle Williams delivers a turn full of heart and love for her character, her movie daughters and her movie husband. Zac Effron also stars as Barnum’s business partner Philip Carlyle, a character drifting through life unhappily and finds his calling when he meets Barnum. Zendaya stars as trapeze acrobat Anne Wheeler, a sweet-hearted, but defiant character who becomes a love interest for Carlyle. Rebecca Ferguson stars as singer Jenny Lind and gives a solid performance, but singer Loren Allred deserves much credit for giving Lind her tremendous singing voice. The film also feature excellent turns by Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Austin Johnson, Cameron Seely, and the amazing Keala Settle.
However, it is Hugh Jackman who certainly earns the starring role as P.T. Barnum the ringmaster of the circus and the leader of the musical. Jackman who has shown his singing talents on stage and in the film adaptation of Les Miserables once again gets to sing his heart out and combine it with his talents as an actor. Though the portrayal of Barnum is obviously a fictionalized take, Jackman’s charisma, comic timing, and passion for the material is evident and makes his performance one of the top reasons for seeing this movie.
And even though the movie’s writing is definitely lacking and obviously not completely grounded in reality, the movie does offer a delightful spectacle with its heart in the right place. Michael Gracey and his cast and crew have turned what essentially is a true story about exploitation and turned it into something empowering and beautiful. Fans of musicals will definitely enjoy this movie and the casual admirer will find still find much to like. It certainly isn’t one of the best musicals to come out of Hollywood, but it is a solid effort and fine way for Michael Gracey to cut his teeth as a director.