Phineas Taylor Barnum (a.k.a. P.T. Barnum), only son of a tailor, was left orphaned in childhood and joined the railroad as a means to make money. As a young man, he returned to his native city to marry Charity, a young woman of certain means to whom he could provide with very little for several more years. When he became unemployed after the shipping company he worked for went bankrupt, he secured a loan with collateral he did not have, and opened a museum of curiosities. Most things were made of wax; he had stuffed animals too, but his two young daughters suggested that what he needed was something alive in the museum, something “sensational”.
After brainstorming, he came up with the idea of recruiting “oddities”, people who were laughed at because of their physical uniqueness, and who wanted to make a buck. The museum became a success overnight. People loved it. A theater critic, not so much. Scathing reviews were published, still people came. After succeeding for awhile with the theatrical troupe, Barnum wanted to appeal to the “highbrows”, so he hired a young plays promoter, “an overcompensated apprentice”, as he put it, and offered 20% entrance gate winning to his novelty act, a striking opera singer who was all the rage in Europe.
He left home and family to accompany the songstress in a tour around the country. Meanwhile, hostile crowds gathered outside his circus. Crowds that almost took everything from him in a maddening moment. As they stood watching what they had lost, Barnum and his troupe of performers realized that their most treasured possession was the family they had built together.
With a running time of 104 minutes, directed by Michael Gracey, from the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and with a star-studded ensemble cast starring Hugh Jackman (P.T. Barnum), Michelle Williams (Charity Barnum), Rebecca Ferguson (Jenny Lind), Zac Efron (Phillip Carlyle), and Zendaya (Anne Wheeler), The Greatest Showman is a crowd pleaser extravaganza from start to finish.
I have seen The Greatest Showman three times. It’s better if I recount my experience with this movie. The first time I saw it, it rubbed me the wrong way; the lyrics and the orchestration were too hip for the era it was portraying. I thought the movie improved dramatically from the point Efron (Carlyle) entered the scene. It helped that he is insanely good looking and he can belt some tunes. The first time, I rated this film in my movie journal as 3 and a half stars. Move forward a few months and a second viewing, and the experience was enhanced two hundred folds.
The songs (lyrics, arrangement, and orchestration) are beautiful, on point, some like Never Enough, interpreted by Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind in an electrifying performance, are delicate yet powerfully moving, others like From Now On and This Is Me are soaring, empowering anthems that celebrate the theatrical troupe’s fighting spirit and their uniqueness. Not an easy feat for a movie that seems all about fluff, but I liked it a great deal more each time I saw it. The biggest appeal of The Greatest Showman is that it recreates the magic of the circus, and it is a celebration of imagination and dreams come true. As Mr. Bennett, the theater critic in the movie put it, “another critic might call the show a celebration of humanity in all colors, shapes and sizes”. No one could have said it better.
Many technical elements make The Greatest Showman a success besides the music. The costume designs are lavish and, together with the makeup and props, make for an eye-catching, endearing mix. The beautiful combination of cinematography, photography, set designs, and clever use of lighting conspire to make certain scenes simply magical; such as the scene in the beach at sunset where young Phineas meets Charity after she was chastised by her father, both illuminated by golden light; the dilapidated mansion amidst fall foliage that hides a wondrous world inside, motes dancing in the sneaked in sunrays; blue, country nights interrupted by a speeding train; bedsheets that serve as background for the “wishing machine”—a whimsical kaleidoscope of moving images reflected on the sheets, which mimic a cinema screen and serve as backdrop to the catchy song A Million Dreams.
Hugh Jackman is better cast in this movie than he was in Les Misérables (2012), in my opinion. He seems to have fun with the material and the empowering numbers, and it shows. Michelle Williams has taken on her cheeriest role in years, one of the few light ones—see also My Week with Marilyn, and Oz The Great and Powerful—in a career filled with hefty roles as a discontented lover/housewife (e.g. Blue Valentine, Take This Waltz, Manchester by the Sea, and All the Money in the World), proving once more her versatility. Zac Efron, returning to his musical movie origins, is a feast for the eyes. He looks dashing, and his chemistry with Hugh Jackman and Zendaya, each for different reasons, is off the charts. Zac Efron and Zendaya are a great looking duo, which lights up the screen, and the story of the conflicted lovers on different sides of life is explored to great effect.