When a musical about circus performers set in the mid 1800-s opens with a song which sounds like it could be straight off of the 2018 charts, you can be fairly confident that you are in for an experience you will remember, for better or worse. You could probably say the same about a trip to the P.T. Barnum museum funnily enough and – like the museum – this movie features more than enough pizzazz to keep eyes glued to the attractions despite possessing something of a grimy underbelly.
The Greatest Showman is director Michael Gracey’s feature film debut but it doesn’t feel much like it. Whether this is because he was wise enough to surround himself with experienced people, or whether It’s because he himself is particularly talented is anyone’s guess. But what is without question is that this movie had direction, the quality of which is obvious from every assured arc and sweep of the camera. Mechanically and stylistically almost everything here is on point. The songs are catchy as all hell, the choreography is always solid; occasionally wonderful, the costume design feels incredibly authentic, the editing shows some real flair for scene and location transitions and there are one or two genuinely stunning shots. The only mark against it here is a few uses of CGI which could charitably be described as ‘a little on the cheap side’. If you want a movie that provides songs which will stick in your head accompanied by all the stimulation that lights, colours and engaging camera work can provide then you will get what you’re after here.
However - and it’s a pretty big ‘however’ - movies need to tell a story, and most of the narrative elements here are lacking. Chief among which is the fact that no one in this movie who hasn’t also played Wolverine gets to do very much actual acting. And listen, I like a good sized helping of Hugh Jackman in my movies; who doesn’t? He’s like Hollywood’s cool dad. But there are other characters in this movie and other stories waiting to be told, and for the most part they’re barely explored. Zac Efron (who is actually really good with what he is given) is set up in a potentially interesting love triangle with Zendaya, but her current partner at the start of the film (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is - amazingly - unable to do much character work with the whole one line of dialogue he has. So what you end up with is a Zac Efron / Zendaya love story occasionally interspersed with cutaways of Abdul-Mateen looking unhappy for some reason. Character development, or the lack thereof, is a real issue.
There are problematic elements of the story being told that are omitted or changed, presumably to make everything more palatable, although I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject. Barnum was, by all accounts, a bit of an exploitative bastard, so when the film tries to hammer home a poorly-judged message about the value of family and your roots in the final act it comes across as white-washing a fairly questionable character’s actions in service of telling a nice story. And it’s a bit of a shame that in 2018 a movie about weirdos and outsiders didn’t do more to compare the prejudice and judgement these characters faced to the experiences of those deemed 'abnormal' by today's society, especially since it had already bridged that gap with the stylistic choice of using modern music in a period film. However, I don’t want to criticise The Greatest Showman for what it isn’t. What it is, despite a script which keeps the narrative incredibly simple and takes the term ‘character development’ to mean that you’re only supposed to develop literally one character before stopping, is an incredibly fun movie. It doesn’t address the social issues it perhaps should, it doesn’t tell a story of any real substance and it doesn’t give it’s supporting cast enough to do, but when the lights come up and the music starts you might well find yourself forgetting any of that because the presentation is so exceptional. This is a wonderful musical, which fails only in the areas that many other (incredibly popular) musicals also have before it, and viewed as such it has to be considered a success for Gracey and co.
Jackman's character at one point states that people come to see his shows for the pleasure of being hoodwinked, and that’s a mentality which would well serve people who view The Greatest Showman. You’re not coming here to see the presentation of an actual mermaid, you just want to be lied to for a bit. Here, it is possible to lose oneself amongst the bright lights and the dazzling musical performances. Escapism of this quality is rare, even if it fails to truly capitalise on it’s potential.