The true life story of the visionary P.T. Barnum and the birth of show business is celebrated in the cheery, sanitized fiction of “The Greatest Showman,” a crowd pleasing spectacle of a musical from director Michael Gracey. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) rose from nothing to create the worldwide sensation of the freak show and circus, and this film makes a great musical but just a so/so biopic.
Forget the idea that you’ll get an in-depth history of the intriguing Barnum and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams), and you’re certainly not going to see any of the darker side of this legendary man. To ensure the film is palatable to today’s modern audiences and their changing attitudes towards inclusiveness, Barnum’s notorious poor treatment of his band of “freaks” and his general exploitation of his performers is completely ignored. The film instead takes the position of creating a rousing, inspiring ode to celebrating individuality and uniqueness. This is nothing more than a charming, lively, and energetic musical with endlessly catchy, toe-tapping original songs — and that’s all it needs to be.
The film is flashy in all the right ways, its dreamy and dazzling costumes punctuated with spirited and elaborate staging and set pieces. Most of the talented cast, including Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Rebecca Ferguson, have a musical or stage theater pedigree so the singing and dancing are equally proficient. The choreography is beautiful in terms of both physical dancing and sweeping camera work (including a stunning, applause-worthy opening musical number and a knockout, gorgeously fluid scene on a trapeze).
At the heart of the story is a poignant and powerful message of chasing your dreams and overcoming adversity, a fiery call to strike up the band and join in the march to the beat of your own drummer. It’s a message we’ve been spoon fed for years, yet it feels genuine and authentic here.
The original songs are gorgeous and deeply affecting, the soundtrack an instant classic. I was so emotional after the show stopping “This Is Me” number that I broke into spontaneous applause right there in the theater.
What a pity that in the film’s final moments there’s a dazzling Big Top display with CGI elephants and lions and horses that reminds audiences of the legacy of abuse at the hands of P.T. Barnum’s circus. It casts a dark cloud over the rest of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.