SBox Recommends: The Greatest Showman (Movie Review)

Note: SBR never spoils. You are safe. Enjoy!

Welcome back to SBox Recommends, where our motto is “Every film has its fans”. Here I see a movie, review it, and then find out who will like it most and who will like it least.

Despite it not being a franchise movie and me not having been to the circus ever, The Greatest Showman has strangely been on my radar all year. I remember as early as last December I was looking at the upcoming year in film in order to commit certain release dates to memory (yes, I’m that nerdy) and constantly seeing that title every time. “The Greatest Showman”; it’s the kind of name that grabs your attention even in a crowd of hundreds of titles. I kept wondering as the year progressed, what is this movie and what is it thinking trying to come out around the time of Star Wars? Also, what the hell kind of combo is Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron anyway?

Eventually, I finally received my answer and that intrigue I felt all year suddenly felt justified. The first trailer served that title justice as it, true to character, stood out from the crowd and got me excited for, of all things, a musical. I personally haven’t seen a musical in the theater since Hairspray, so I was eager to give my old mystery movie the opportunity to earn that fascination I’ve inadvertently built up over the course of a year. Did it succeed?

Story

The Greatest Showman is a musical biopic based on the life and career of P. T. Barnum, the creator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

A down-on-his-luck, 1860s man of high ambition and imaginative spirit, P. T. Barnum looks for a way to support his family after losing his job. He manages to secure a museum building and soon gets the idea of creating a great show… nay, The Greatest Show. A circus comprising of a group of marginalized and odd individuals, the show quickly gains traction and allows Barnum opportunities he could only dream of. Though for all the success and smiles he manages to bring through his show, the circus also becomes the target of protests, critical backlash, scandal, and even Barnum’s own ambition.

Writing

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For many critics, the one thing standing in the way of The Greatest Showman being something magnificent is the narrative. And while I do concede that those concerns are valid, I wouldn’t go as far as to say the story is as weak as some are saying.

Let’s talk about what the film gets right. The plot itself is absolutely riveting. It’s an inspiring tale of entrepreneurship and the benefits of thinking outside the box. It’s about the joys of creating beautiful moments, and how wonderful things can be found in all people, regardless of size, shape, color or what have you. Alternatively, it showcases the dangers of letting your ambition get the best of you to the point where you lose the plot on what makes your creation so great. These are all great themes and morals that not only connect today (particularly that of inclusion), but will remain evergreen for generations to come.

Whether the film does that good a job at communicating some of those themes is another story, but let’s remain positive for now.

Plot progression is done at a good and natural pace that never feels rushed. A bit fast, sure, but definitely not rushed. The dialogue is also well-implemented, especially for a musical where it’d be tempting to write all the conversations like non-rhyming song lyrics. And if there’s one thing this film does extraordinarily well it’s making you care about these main characters. You genuinely enjoy all of these people whether it’s Barnum’s family, the performers, or even the snooty critic. You’re never rooting for anyone to fail or for bad things to happen to any one of them, because you understand their dilemmas and want to see them come out on top.

Everything seems to be in order so far, so where’s does it go wrong?

For starters, as nice as the story of this inspiring man comes across through this film, I’m willing to bet this is a fairly romanticized version of the P. T. Barnum story. In fact, let me check really quick:

… Just as I thought. (Note to self: don’t look too far behind the curtain). Thankfully, it’s not outlandishly off-base from the source material, but it’s clear that this is a very optimistic take on Barnum’s life story.

Although, the main issue with the film is how for all the notes the film wants to hit and all the themes it’s trying to convey, the plot itself seems to take a backseat to the musical numbers. It’s almost as if they built the story around the songs rather than the songs around the story, and that results in a story that falls short of its potential. It’s a shame, because while the story is set up to be a much deeper film its insistence on setting up the next dance number instead of giving the story time to breathe causes some of those themes to be glossed over.

I think this film would’ve benefitted from just one more rewrite to beef up the story. Had that been the case, I would’ve liked to see two aspects of the film built upon just a bit more. One would be how Barnum went from his original idea of a wacky museum to a freak show circus, since the explanation could’ve been elaborated on just a bit more. The scene they use to show the eureka moment gets the point across, but it seems kind of awkward and rushed how he gets from one conclusion to the next. Just one tiny scene in the middle could’ve fixed that.

Another aspect involves the protests. We get the vibe that Barnum’s circus is controversial and are outright told at least two of the reasons by the critic and one protester, but we never really see what led to that accusation. In fact, one popular accusation of Barnum I would’ve loved to see touched upon was that of exploitation, but it’s never mentioned (probably for obvious reasons). An easy solution to this problem would’ve been something I’m surprised the film doesn’t actually do: show us the circus! Aside from dance numbers that throw everything at you all at once, show us for just one or two minutes what a typical show was like. That way the audience can draw their own conclusions.

On the whole, the writing is far from the train-wreck I hear some people say it is. It’s not a bad narrative, but it does fall short of its potential to be as great as it initially wanted to be.

Music/Cinematography

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On the exact opposite side of the coin, the musical numbers in this movie are fantastic! But hey, what did you expect when you had Paul and Pasek of La La Land fame writing the songs?

I guess the best place to begin is with the soundtrack, which fucking rules. Not one song of the bunch falls short of the other. None of it was out of place. None of it was unnecessary (aside from one or two reprises). Each song blends into the next flawlessly, and I wouldn’t change out one of these songs for the world.

I love the choices taken with the general style of the soundtrack. It’s a very modern sound with very upbeat and triumphant instrumentation and at the core of it all is the percussion. It’s the beats, which at times are as effective as a rock or hip-hop concert, that steal the show when it comes to the music. Well, that and the vocal talent, which is superb all around. It’s certainly a modern sound, but it serves as a great demonstration of how Barnum was a man ahead of his time. It’s so unbelievably fitting.

Favorite tracks and dance numbers will vary from person to person. While I know the two absolute standouts will be “The Greatest Show” and “Rewrite the Stars” with special mention to the freak anthem “This Is Me”, my two favorite songs aren’t any of the above. For me it’s a tie between “A Million Dreams”, a song about making dreams happen which highlights Barnum’s romantic journey with his wife, and “The Other Side” a duet between High Jackman and Zac Efron showing Barnum recruiting Carlyle into show business. The latter of those two also happens to be one of my favorite dance numbers in the movie next to “Rewrite the Stars” a duet between Efron and Zendaya.

Speaking of dance numbers, let’s talk about cinematography. I’m very happy with how the movie captures all the action and makes everything in this film look, appropriately enough, like a spectacle. The color pallet is of course vibrant, colorful and full of life. The set design is absolutely phenomenal with one especially fantastic looking set coming at the end of the film. The feel and consistency of the 19th century is certainly felt in every frame, and it’s damn beautiful.

Some more impressive visual moments come from the movie’s use of mise en scene — long takes for those who don’t know. The film has a noticeable habit of transitioning between locations by having the characters literally step into the next location seamlessly. It happens at least three times from what I can remember, and all of them work well. In fact, the camerawork is actually great at following one person and using them to switch perspectives and even give the illusion of movement. It creates a sensation as seamless as standing in the scene itself and panning your eyes left or right. Just brilliant.

Acting

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Another high-point of the movie is how everyone that gets in front of the camera is giving 100% to it. This is the kind of movie that if nothing else shows off the pure talent that exists in each individual person.

Hugh Jackman, for those who don’t know, was the driving force that got this movie made. This is his passion project and it shows through his performance as P. T. Barnum. Disregarding the fact that this isn’t the most faithful representation of the man in general, Jackman hits every single note of the character wonderfully. He’s charming, determined and optimistic, but also cunning and at times very deceptive. He portrays the qualities of both a showman and a conman so well and with such passion and trustworthiness that you almost forget he was just Wolverine a few months ago. Plus, what an awesome singer and dancer he is.

Zac Efron plays James Anthony Bailey I mean Carlyle, a completely fictional character (for some reason) and business partner to Barnum. This is Efron’s 5th musical I believe, and by far his best on every level. I had my reservations that he may have lost his musical chops among all those comedies he’s done over the years, but I was dead wrong. He’s great at presenting himself as the upperclassmen who’s been through the same song and dance so many times that he’s been phoning life in as long as he can remember. And when he does decide to run with Barnum to join the circus, you feel how his whole demeanor becomes unfettered as a result. He’s calculated, down-to-earth, and true to himself throughout, making him a great character to follow.

Michelle Williams plays Barnum’s wife, Chasity, who falls in love with Barnum at a young age despite their status differences. While I can’t really say that the character is anything we haven’t seen before in wife characters — the nice, down-to-earth, emotional center to the lead who tries to keep her husband’s rising ambitions in check — I do like how Williams plays her. In a movie where everyone’s going through changes and making new discoveries, she’s the only character that stays exactly the same from beginning to end. She’s certainly a likable character, and her vocal performance is great as well.

Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, a colored trapeze artist who falls in love with Carlyle. Of all the circus performers in the film, she is the one who’s given the most to do, though it is a side-story. I liked how this character was incredibly dignified, reserved, and classy throughout. She’s a risktaker who isn’t afraid to call out certain people on their bullshit, but only to a certain extent, particularly when it comes to her willingness to get involved wit Carlyle; something very risque for the time. She has great emotional range through her performance, too, and her dedication to making this role the best it can be shows. Just the fact that she bothered to do her own stunts is admirable in its own right.

Rebecca Ferguson portrays the Swedish Nightingale herself, Jenny Lind, an opera singer who becomes Barnum’s star attraction. Now, her role is probably one of the smaller of all the main characters, and unfortunately the character doesn’t really get much to do until the very end. I do think Ferguson does a good job in a similar vain to Efron with Carlyle, but I do wish they spiced up the character’s personality a bit so that Ferguson can go all the way with her performance. That said, she does get one of the highlight moments of the film for me in the very middle of the movie when she sings for the circus. Even though it’s not actually her singing (shout out to Lauren Allred. You rock), she did a great job selling me to the contrary.

This brings us to some of the least utilized characters of the movie. Unfortunately, that includes some of the freaks, themselves. One flaw I have with the film is that it only focuses on 2 of them, not including Zendaya, when you could’ve also given some shine to some of the other potentially interesting acts that fill the stage every dance sequence. All we get in the spotlight kinda are the bearded lady (played by Keala Settle) and the dwarf general Tom Thumb (played by Sam Humphrey). Others performers get maybe a line or two here or there, like the giant man, the fat guy, the tattooed man, and the other trapeze artist. Don’t get me wrong, they all do fine, but it’s almost sad to think that a movie that’s supposed to be about acceptance and “embracing your inner freak” when the freaks are given minimal dialogue and screentime aside from two musical numbers.

The final actor worth mentioning is James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper critic played by Paul Sparks. This character, who appears in maybe three scenes, somehow manages to leave an impression and even have a mini-arc. I don’t know how that’s possible, but color me impressed. It’s not like the character is especially complex or great, but I’m kinda glad he was there as he tends to give the world this movie is set in more dimensions. He’s the character to represent the snooty snobs Barnum tries to impress, and does a decent job doing it. Who would’ve thought?

Production Value

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This is definitely a good looking production. I’ve already mentioned the cinematography, camerawork, visuals, set design and soundtrack, so there’s just two more things I wanna touch on.

I’m eternally grateful for the fact that this is not like Moulin Rouge whose editing goes so quickly you can’t appreciate what’s on the screen, or worse, develop a headache. For the most part I’d say the camera only cuts when it absolutely needs to and almost prefers to keep rolling as opposed to doing constant cuts.

Also, the costume design is fantastic. I’m no expert on how accurate this dress is to 1860s attire, but they still look very good, especially the costumes for the circus show. Just like the visual effects and sets, it compliments the movie’s up-beat, high-energy, flashy nature.

Overall

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I guess that leaves us one question: to paraphrase one of the film’s songs “Is this the greatest show”? My answer to that question isn’t a simple yes or no, but simply “P. T. Barnum”. Allow me to explain.

When I think The Greatest Showman I come to two general attitudes. On the one hand, this movie is a technical mess. It’s very style over substance, it takes a lot of liberties with the source material, the themes it tries to convey can sometimes become undercut or unfulfilled, and the story can sometimes come off more like a break before the next song sequence than an equal part of the film. It’s hard not to think that the film could’ve been a lot better had the narrative been dealt with as much care as the musical numbers. On the other hand, despite everything I just said… I don’t really care. While the story is a bit paint-by-numbers and underdeveloped, it’s good enough to make you care about the characters and keep your attention. It’s soundtrack and dance sequences can’t be beat; in fact I’m listening to one of these songs right now. The performances flat-out rule. The themes, when they do land, are really good and noble morals that can apply to anyone. Most importantly, it was fun and put a smile on my face from beginning to end.

So, maybe in a strange way this is a really accurate representation of the life of P. T. Barnum. Perhaps not the actual man, but definitely his work. It may not be as technically or artistically excellent as some may want, but it is fun, charming and passion-filled. To me, it did it’s job of entertaining me wonderfully, and that’s enough for me to recommend it.

Score: 8.5/10

Recommendations

  • Musical fans probably already saw this film on pure principle, but in case you’ve had reservations on seeing it, I’d still say it’s worth at least one chance to impress or disappoint you. Try not to expect an incredible musical like Sweeney Todd or La La Land, but expect maybe a film at the level of Jersey Boys. You may love it you may hate it.
  • As a family film, I can see kids picking up a few good lessons from the movie as well as enjoying the catchy songs and flashy imagery of at least three of the musical numbers. There’s nothing especially offensive here, so have at it.
  • Those looking for a great movie about P. T. Barnum should probably not get their hopes too high. This is a very optimistic take on Barnum’s life story, so if you’re a purist proceed with caution. If you can see past it, more power to you.
  • If you hate musicals, there’s nothing for you here besides a good soundtrack. Stay away.
  • As for everyone else, as long as you go in with the mindset of you wanting to be entertained and not wowed, you may find yourself really enjoying this movie as I did. I can’t promise you that you’ll love it, but it’s worth the risk at the very least, especially when it comes to home video or Netflix. Until then, if you’re feeling adventurous, try your luck on the circus. You may be glad you did.

I’m SBox180. Thanks for reading!

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