While the title The Greatest Showman refers to lead character P.T. Barnum, it would be a more apt description for director Michael Gracey, who makes an impressive feature debut despite middling songs and a tepid story that only works in the broad strokes of “Acceptance = good, social climbing = bad.” Barnum should be a rich, interesting character, but outside the bounds of a biopic showing the complexities of the entertainer/flimflam man, The Greatest Showman settles for a borderline hagiography where Barnum is the leader of outcasts who learns to appreciate the family he’s put together rather than aspiring to reach the high society that was denied to him as a child. And yet with vivacious direction and energetic performances, The Greatest Showman still puts on a solid showing.
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) believes he’s destined for greatness, and he also wants to provide his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and two daughters with the life he never had after suffering from oppressive poverty. He eventually seizes on the idea of compiling “unique” people (he never calls them “freaks”) to fill his museum, and yet he can never stop aspiring to break into high society. He recruits failed but wealthy playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as a partner, and then tries to establish a separate touring show featuring acclaimed European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). But eventually Barnum’s social climbing puts him at odds with not only his band of outsiders, but also with his wife.
It takes a little while for The Greatest Showman to heat up as at first it seems like Gracey is just doing a series of music videos rather than musical numbers, but eventually the movie finds its rhythm even if it can never completely conquer a central problem—the hero is a populist conman who believes that as long as people are happy, it doesn’t matter if he’s dishonest. Maybe if our current situation was a little different this would be more palatable, but even the immense charm of Jackman can’t overcome the fact that we as an audience have to agree that this is a Disney-fied version of Barnum. In this regard, the musical genre provides some relief since it provides some distance from harsh realities (of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda recently showed that you can still be historically accurate and blow everyone away).
Usually, a musical can just coast on its numbers, but most of the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul simply aren’t that memorable. A good musical number should be an inescapable earworm and most of what The Greatest Showman offers are standard fare about believing in your dreams and overcoming adversity without ever striking a memorable melody outside “The Greatest Show” and “This Is Me.” Paired with the ho-hum plot, The Greatest Showman has trouble achieving escape velocity.
And yet this is where Gracey really shines. Some musical directors have struggled to find a cinematic way to capture what looks like it would better on a stage, but Gracey excels at cutting together vibrant pieces with some outstanding choreography. You take a mediocre song like “The Other Side”, and how it supports a perfunctory plot point (Barnum convincing Carlyle to join him), and yet it’s an electrifying number thanks to the performances and the way Gracey directs it. You see this again and again, and we’re left to wonder what Gracey could achieve if he had better material at his disposal.
He’s certainly not let down by his cast. Between The Greatest Showman and Les Miserables, Jackman hasn’t found a movie musical worthy of his Tony-winning talents, but he goes all-in on this Barnum biopic. We believe in Barnum because of Jackman’s devotion to the dramatic weight even if the character is sometimes overshadowed by the supporting storylines. Ferguson is also outstanding as Lind showing that between this, The Snowman, and Life, she’s far out-classing the roles she’s gained following her breakthrough two years ago in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
These memorable turns are really the story of The Greatest Showman— piecemeal elements that are outshining the surrounding film. Nothing changes that the script feels shallow and undercooked or that the songs are largely fluff, but everyone involved is giving it their all and that energy carries the movie. You want to see Gracey directing a better musical and the cast starring in a better musical, and yet they manage to uplift The Greatest Showman through sheer force of will, which is impressive in its own right.