Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Seattle, Zendaya
Plot: Broke dreamer, P. T Barnum (Jackman) makes a stab at giving his family their dream life by starting a circus of unusual acts.
The opening to The Greatest Showman could be one of the best starts to a movie all 2017. Old-timey title cards stating the production companies are shown over the sound of a pulse-pounding track. Then, in between title cards, P.T Barnum, face covered by a top hat and shadow, waits underneath the bleachers, his movements timed faultlessly to the music. Hugh Jackman opens the song with those breathy, rich vocals that added so much emotion to Les Miserables. And then we dive into a memorable track (just the first of many great songs in this catchy musical), that features an electrifying dance troupe, trapeze artists and an elephant or two. Michael Gracey might be in charge of his very first feature, but with brave introductions like this, you would never have guessed it.
The Greatest Showman rockets on to be a cheerful, upbeat musical with all of the lavish trimmings. There are going to be a few comparisons to La La Land, being last year’s musical movie, and, yes, a lot of the reason The Greatest Showman finally got the budget it needed was producers hoping the comparison will be made by viewers, but this is a different beast entirely. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was an artistic, thoughtful look at the Hollywood lifestyle. The Greatest Showman is nowhere near as interested in being as intelligent. So, no, it is nowhere near as good as that famous film, but it might just be that little bit more fun. It is one of those brazen, cheerful films where little thought is put into logic and everything is put into the spectacle. Cue whole character origins being summarised into single music numbers, including the death of a parent, love at first sight and a poor man rising to the status of husband material. But for its lack of depth that La La Land cherished, Gracey makes up for with a willingness to make his audience smile. It is hard not to fall in love with Barnum and his new wife, Charity, as they dance across the rooftop, one move in particular where Michelle Williams runs off a rooftop only for Jackman to catch her, screaming brilliance. The plot doesn’t slow down there, Barnum deciding to get his wife and kids the life he promised them and cheating a loan out of the bank. He sets up a museum, which struggles to take off, until Barnum comes up with the idea of filling it with the strangest people he can find. Cue Barnum signing up dwarves, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and all sorts of unique people, Gracey flying along with the story with nothing more than a wink and a smile. The rest you either know or will find out, watching Barnum navigate the tricky world of dreams. The storyline might be having a ball, but it does touch on some interesting themes. Barnum might be empowering his employees, but are those his intentions or a beneficial unplanned consequence? Is it possible to climb from the bottom to the rich lifestyle without losing your way? This is a movie about image and standing by your values. Just because the likes of Zac Efron support these oddities, is he still happy to be associated in public with them? This is a film where several people are not only asked their opinions, but forced to prove them. Not everyone succeeds.
There are cracks in the fun. In a film, played as fast and loose as this, it gets away with an awful lot. Every time a narrative mistake crops up, we have already whizzed away to the next scene. But there are a few issues that need to be addressed. For one, there is a lot of CGI used in The Greatest Showman. It shouldn’t bother the viewer, but it is noticeable. Perhaps we have been treated to practical effects making a comeback over digital imagery recently, but when the trapeze stunts-people are animated, rather than actual actors, some of the magic is lost. As Efron and Zendaya dive into a duet, dancing around a circus arena, you want the moves to be choreographed to perfection, rather than being cooked up in an animator’s studio. It loses some of that grittiness, which is a shame, because Gracey proves he is capable of practical direction. ‘The Other Side’ is a song that puts emphasis in clever timing and keen direction, a scene that stands out above the rest of the movie for simply being real. But then again, does this rob too much of the fun away? Superhero movies are plastering their films with an exuberant amount of digital trickery; is the crowd-pleasing musical not allowed the same privilege? The end result is a movie that is full of smiles and joy. The performances are all superb from Keala Seattle’s outcast bearded lady to Zendaya’s world-weary gymnast, tired of being judged for her skin colour. But, of course, there is only really one performance on everyone’s lips. The first film I saw in the cinema in 2017 was Logan. The last was The Greatest Showman. I feel blessed to have my movie year book-ended by two extraordinary Hugh Jackman performances. He is turning into one of the greatest actors we have at the moment, if he wasn’t already, always totally selling his films with an absolute commitment to character. You cannot make a film like this without totally believing in the narrative. Hugh Jackman, like P.T Barnum himself, is that cheery entertainer, standing on the streets, selling us tickets. Inviting us into the show. In many ways, Hugh Jackman is the real greatest showman.
Final Verdict: The Greatest Showman is more concerned with stealing smiles than injecting meaning, but is such an entertaining ride, it is hard to dislike the end result.