Movie Review: ‘THE GREATEST SHOWMAN’ – step right up

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Rated PG, 105 minutes.
Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh JackmanMichelle WilliamsZac EfronZendaya and Rebecca Ferguson

There is a curious case to be made for musical films. On one hand, they seem to have all but disappeared from cultural relevance, but on the other hand, works such as LA LA LAND and HAMILTON continue to breathe new life into the genre. Hoping to continue this renaissance this holiday season, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN takes to the stage with moderate success.

Set in the mid 1800s, the film follows the story P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), an ambitious young man with nothing to his name but a million dreams of a life of fame and fortune. After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), and finding happiness in simply having each other, Barnum decides to make good on his dreams and invent a business like no other: A circus comprised of outcasts commonly regarded as freaks for all the world to see. While some find such a display as nothing more than exploitation or downright immoral, others see it as a celebration of what makes people special, but more importantly, human.

Featuring a pleasantly diverse array of songs from the Oscar-winning team behind last year’s acclaimed LA LA LAND, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN vastly succeeds in its attempts to bring song and dance back to their former glory. Rarely do these musical numbers feel forced or distracting and are often accompanied by nearly perfect choreography. It’s no secret Jackman has an undying passion for the genre, and it’s darn-near impossible not to see that the actor has poured his heart and soul into the project.

Hugh Jackman, left, and Michelle Williams are P.T. and Charity Barnum in ‘THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.’ Courtesy Photo.

The supporting cast is mostly able to hold their own alongside Jackman. Zac Efron comes out of musical retirement to show he hasn’t lost his flare for the stage as Barnum’s business partner, Philip Carlyle, and proves he still has outstanding potential for the medium. Fresh off her theatrical debut in SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING, actress Zendaya plays opposite to Efron as African trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. While overwhelmingly beautiful, Anne struggles with social acceptance due to her identity as a black woman in a time where anyone who isn’t white is still treated as a freak.

A clear standout among the circus performers is Keala Settle who plays the bearded lady with golden pipes, belting her way through song after song with unbridled confidence and charm. Rebecca Ferguson does the best she can with sadly limited material as the opera singer Jenny Lind, but ultimately remains underused in spite of a dazzling moment in the spotlight. The same also goes for Michelle Williams who showcases a phenomenally choreographed dance number early on, only to spend nearly all of her remaining screen time in the audience supporting her husband’s career.

Musicals often are tasked with the balancing act of dedicating a certain amount of their running time to song and dance, but also ensure that the stories they try to tell remain in tact. A popular way to approach is usually to share the stage between the two by having the songs themselves move the story along. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN attempts to follow such a pattern, but unfortunately, isn’t able to stick the landing every time. For example, in an early song featuring a young P.T. Barnum and his budding relationship with Charity, much is left to interpretation in regards to how much they actually know about each other, simply because lingering on such things would come at the expense of the song. It’s just a shame that after all the effort that clearly went into the show stopping musical numbers, the story frequently struggles to keep up with its own tempo.

First time director Michael Gracey proves himself a naturally talented filmmaker with potential to show great improvement over time. While by no means a perfect film, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN offers a heartfelt message about embracing what makes one unique, as well a spectacular soundtrack. Audiences in search of a well-made musical for the holidays will find much to enjoy here.

[Grade: B-]

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is now playing in theaters nationwide.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.