DIR: Michael Gracey • WRI: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon • PRO: Peter Chernin, Laurence Mark, Jenno Topping • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Tom Cross
Robert Duffy, Joe Hutshing, Michael McCusker, Jon Poll, Spencer Susser • MUS: John Debney, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Joseph Trapanese • DES: Nathan Crowley • CAST: Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson
It’s bad enough when a film gets too heavy-handed with its message but even worse when it then proceeds to not uphold the very message it preached. Such is The Greatest Showman. The film talks a talk, but it doesn’t walk the walk. Well, if the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has taught generations of children anything, it’s that physical oddities and quirks are to be celebrated – but only if they can be exploited for a profit. Evidently, director Michael Gracey is a fan of this sentiment.
Roughly (very roughly) based on the life of show business entrepreneur P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and the founding of the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film is a kaleidoscope of colour and song that looks almost impressive enough to distract from its muddled plot and bad writing. Risking all he has to pursue the dream he and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) have harboured since childhood, Barnum seeks to create the greatest show on Earth. Reaching out to those who have been shunned by society for their colour, their disabilities and just their general unconventional-ness, Barnum brings together a rag-tag group of performers to entertain and delight the very public that had always disregarded them – and all for the low, low cost of an admission ticket!
Jackman is, of course, as charming as ever as the titular showman and, with his musical theatre credentials, clearly revels in a role that allows him to showcase all of his talents. Other cast members fare equally well, in particular Zendaya who brings an intensity to the role of trapeze artist Anne Wheeler that rings sincere even if it is sometimes out of place alongside her co-stars fluffier performances. This is not a film that lacks talent, but rather coherence in both narrative structure and theme. One of the films biggest problems is its paradoxical treatment of its ‘freak’ characters. Despite every set piece and musical number regurgitating the films theme of self-empowerment, the circus performers are only ever used as background props for the films traditionally beautiful and able-bodied characters. We never learn anything about their personalities or back stories in significant detail and so can only identify them by their physical characteristics; the giant man, the conjoined twins, the dog-boy, the bearded lady etc. By reducing these characters to the titles slapped on them by a world that ostracizes rather than embraces those who are different, the film is reaffirming the very ideology it claims to reject. The lack of self-awareness is apparent as to almost be humorous.
The film also suffers from issues with pacing – racing forward in the beginning then slowing to an almost tedious drip by the end. Years pass in the blink of an eye, the circus performs one successful show then suddenly Barnum is debt-free and can purchase an opulent mansion. It’s a bit jarring to say the least. In his eagerness to provide the audience with a good time, director Gracey forgoes all build-up for constant pay-off, which ultimately feels undeserved and means the films quieter moments lack an emotional punch. To give the film some credit, it does feature some visually fantastic sequences and Gracey does provide some flair with the camera work. But by far the oddest choice made for the film, giving that it is trying to emulate the Hollywood studio musicals of old, is the musical direction. The soundtrack consists entirely of pop anthems, the B-side kind and are unsurprisingly unmemorable.
Overall, The Greatest Showman is a film that aims no higher than pure unadulterated entertainment and doesn’t even really succeed at that. It may provide just enough spectacle to prove a pleasant distraction during the holiday period, but a warning in advance – leave the brain behind for this one.
PG (See IFCO for details)
The Greatest Showman is released 26th December 2017