Hot Take: Lots of great music and an occasionally fun piece of fiction that is entirely too rushed… too bad it’s supposed to be based on the true story of P.T. Barnum.
It’s tough to evaluate a film like The Greatest Showman without factoring in the true tale it is portraying. It’s expected for all films based on true events to take liberties but it’s another thing when the film adds or subtracts tales of fiction that skew the overall depiction of the subject matter. That’s very much the case for the often fictional tale featuring the real life P.T. Barnum as a character. Hugh Jackman stars as Barnum in this original musical which took over 7 years to find its way to the big screen. Jackman was attached to the project from the beginning but the risky proposition of an original musical (the original plan to release came about pre-La La Land) kept the film from seeing the light of day longer than expected. The result though leaves a little bit to be desired and while the music is fun and the cast is game, there’s a bad taste left by how often the film veers from the facts and presents an alternate reality for Barnum, his entrepreneurial endeavors and the people around him.
The Barnum tale opens with a musical number (“The Greatest Show”) and fades mid-song into the tale of a young P.T. Barnum (Ellis Rubin portrays and Ziv Zaifman provides the singing voice) who appears as the poor, young son of a tailor. He meets young Charity (Skylar Dunn) and while the two become close, their relationship is frowned on by her rich family who want her to have nothing to do with the poor Barnum. Their adolescent relationship is told in fast forward to adulthood through a montage over the musical number “A Million Dreams” and eventually an older Barnum (Hugh Jackman) marries an older Charity (Michelle Williams) and have two daughters. As with much of the tale, the plot moves at a breakneck pace. It doesn’t necessarily hurt the story throughout but occasionally, the fast forward button feels overused and minimizes any real drama the movie might have.
Barnum can only offer a modest life for Charity and their kids but she doesn’t mind. He works as a clerk at a shipping company but when the company goes out of business, Barnum finds an opportunity to use the deed to the ships from the shipping company (which sank causing the company to go out of business) to get a bank loan to open a museum. Barnum’s American Museum features wax models and sales are slow until his children suggest the exhibit features something more alive. Inspired by his children and a caring deformed woman who gave him an apple when he was a kid living on the street after his father died (Remember that montage?), Barnum seeks out people with abnormalities and extraordinary abilities to populate his museum. (Another montage song — “Come Alive”.) His search leads him to Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded woman with a beautiful voice, Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a dwarf who worked with Barnum under the stage name General Tom Thumb and others including a dog boy, a tattooed man, a really tall guy, a large man and a brother/sister trapeze act. Most of the characters are based on real Barnum attractions with the exception of the trapeze act which are part of the story for a later fictional subplot. The brother/sister act is played by Zendaya (as Anne) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as W.D.) and add to the controversial acts due to their race.
SPOILER ALERT: Usually these reviews are spoiler free but this one will not be. Spoilers to follow!
Barnum begins to have success but it’s not enough. He convinces socialite and playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help him promote his show (via another musical number — “The Other Side”) and eventually, Carlyle gets Barnum and his circus in front of the Queen of England. While meeting Queen Victoria, Barnum also meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a Swedish Opera singer. Seeking respect, Barnum approaches Lind to bring her to the United States to perform. Barnum convinces her to come to the U.S. and the show is a huge success. Lind’s voice (supplied by Loren Allred) is phenomenal (“Never Enough” is the song she sings) and she’s infatuated with Barnum which keeps the two close as they go on tour. Meanwhile, (Another song — “Tightrope”! Another montage!) Charity feels a disturbance in their marriage thanks to the presence of Lind. Also, the circus acts (Another song — “This Is Me”! Another montage!) and Carlyle feel displaced by Barnum’s sudden shift in attention. Also, a relationship between Carlyle and trapeze artist Anne begins to bloom but is shut down when the two are shunned in public by Carlyle’s parents. All of this (including both characters) is fictional but it leads to one of the film’s best musical numbers — “Rewrite the Stars” — featuring Efron and Zendaya and some rather impressive aerial artistry.
Eventually, Lind makes a pass at Barnum (fiction) which he rejects and right before leaving the stage before quitting the tour, kisses Barnum and the scandalous kiss makes the paper. (Lind quitting is fact. The kiss was fiction.) When Barnum gets back home, he conveniently gets back to his museum/circus burning down. Carlyle gets injured in the fire going back in to save Anne (who isn’t in there) but that allows Barnum to be the hero and save Carlyle. Meanwhile, Barnum finds out Lind quit the tour, the bank forecloses on the Barnum mansion and Charity runs back to her family after seeing the picture (fiction). Barnum hits the bar. The entire circus troupe shows up to give Barnum a pep talk (Another song — “From Now On’) and he runs to his wife to make amends. The two reconcile in seconds because, well, why not.
Thirsty to rebuild, Barnum seeks out a loan from the bank and is denied. What Barnum doesn’t know is that his fictional partner Carlyle has been saving money and is ready to help out by lending him the money he’s been ratholing away waiting for Barnum to fail in exchange for 50% of the business. Barnum gets the bright idea to not rebuild but to start a traveling circus and the final song of the film is also the first — “The Greatest Show” — as the opening sequence becomes the last as the first circus performance featuring Barnum as the Ringmaster is shown. The song doesn’t stop this time as Barnum hands the reins to Carlyle (one show in, mind you!), hops on an elephant and rides off to see his wife and kids and enjoy retirement.
The Greatest Showman entertains with some great musical numbers but frustrates through some hackneyed storytelling that plays too loose with the facts. A story such as Barnum’s is too easily researched and known to be revered in such a way. Although, to be fair, Aaron Sorkin does the same thing with the life of Steve Jobs and gets lauded as a genius. So, it’s a matter of taste. If you don’t care about accuracy and want some fun, entertaining musical numbers with spirited performances, The Greatest Showman can definitely satisfy that way. However, it’s hard to praise the film without damning it for its historical inaccuracies and its willingness to gloss over some rather hefty life moments with a montage and a song. It minimizes the dramatic effect and trivializes the life and times of Barnum to a handful of song and dance numbers. That being said, I can’t say I wasn’t entertained and I’d expect if you’re a fan of musicals or Jackman, this movie will deliver at least some entertainment for you.