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Movie Review: "The Greatest Showman" Is A Rousing But Highly Flawed Piece of Entertainment

Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson,
Zendaya, Keala Settle, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely 
Story by Jenny Bicks
Screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Directed by Michael Gracey

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs

 Out of Four

In the mid '90's, we got two opposite extremes of of the "true story movie: Disney's Pocahontas was  a briskly entertaining, magical film that was a pure delight from start to finish and had a great message, but bared about as much resemblance to history as McDonalds does to haute cuisine. Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp was a long, slow. drawn out epic that told the closest thing we'll probably ever get to the real story of its title figure on the big screen, but it left many wondering why this man's story deserved to be told.  At the time, there was no question in my mind that I preferred Pocahontas, and I still refuse to apologize for my love of that film, but the distortion of history does bother me a lot more now than it did then, and conversely, my appreciation for the dark and unflinching mythbusting character study of Wyatt Earp has grown over time. It dared to take a larger than life name synonymous with heroism and show us the deeply flawed man behind it.  
Another film is perhaps more on point: Newsies was neither a hit nor critically praised at the time, but it has been embraced as a classic by a generation who were caught up by its great songs, lovable characters and triumph of the human spirit story. The fact that n real life the young paper characters didn't actually win their strike until they were very old men didn't concern them then, or now, but it's always bothered me that this "you can accomplish anything if you stick together" and "don't be hassled by the man" inspirational story had to flat out make up a happy ending.

"Impossible comes true, it's taking over you . . ."
(Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
This all brings us to The Greatest Showman, and the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a larger than life figure whose life, personality and accomplishments were truly remarkable, and our cultural image of who he was, and what he did, is generally either overly lauded or vilified. He never actually said "There's a sucker born every minute", so we owe him an apology for that. On the other hand, he did lease a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman (despite the fact that slavery was illegal in the New York at the time) whom he used as his first attraction and when she died, sold tickets to the autopsy, so at best we're talking about VERY small apology.

The Greatest Showman does little to nothing to explore the many facets of this very complicated man, settling instead for a an unabashedly cheesy feel good piece that is a showcase for Hugh Jackman the Broadway dynamo. And that's not entirely a bad choice. It makes for a very entertaining film full of catchy tunes, strong performances (including some of the best singing to hit a major movie musical in a very long time) and a timely message about acceptance and diversity, and its a movie the whole family can enjoy together. But it's also a very rose colored portrayal of a man who wasa  shameless opportunist, user and racist despite being a dedicated Unionist later on, and it not only romanticizes him a great deal, but it takes major liberties with other figures that aren't doing them any favors (In real life, Barnum began exhibiting his bearded lady (real name Annie Jones) when she was 9 months old as “The Infant Esau.” He enlisted Charles Stratton, or “General Tom Thumb” when he was 4, as opposed to 22 as portrayed in the filmAnd I would not be displeased if there is a way the estate of the great humanitarian Jenny Lind can sue outright for turning her into a petty jilted lover.) .

Barnum gives his daughter a birthday present.
(Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
The film begins with Barnum as a child, the son of a New York City tailor, Philo Barnum (Will Swenson, who never sings or barely speaks in the film, but still manages to fair better than he did in The Singles Ward.). The elder Barnum, and his son Phineas, are viciously mistreated by their clientele, but it is during one of these tailoring sessions that the younger Barnum first meets a young girl named Charity, whom he instantly falls for. The two become fast friends, and in the course of the ensuing production number the scene jumps forward to when Phineas is now a strapping young man of 50 (between the make-up, aging extremely well and sheer acting prowess, Jackman easily passes himself off as younger than he really is, but pretending to buy him as 20 something requires a strong suspension of disbelief that brings to mind Kevin Costner in the early section of Wyatt Earp, though the fact that this film takes place so far out of reality anyway makes it easier to swallow.) Charity's parents want nothing to do with the young upstart, who isn't good enough for their daughter (now played by Michelle Williams), but she leaves with him anyway, and they go off to make it on their own, and within a year they have two lovely daughter around 7 and 10 years old (ok, it's a little more than a year, I guess.). Phineas the dreamer is quite despondent that he has been unable to bring success and stability to the family, and yet they are perfectly happy the way things are.

Barnum concocts a plan to create a Museum of Oddities, and cons his way into getting a bank loan.
The business isn't catching on, until his daughter convince him that he needs to bring more "life" to it. Barnum's response is to seek out strange and usual people ("freaks") such as a Bearded Lady, a diminutive man, "The Heaviest Man in the World", and a brother/sister acrobat act.

"How's it hangin'?"
(Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox)

Stung by vicious reviews of the show he is putting onin  his museum, Barnum attempts to bring a touch of class to it by enlisting the aid of successful theatrical producer, Phillip Carlysle (Zac Efron), who initially balks at the idea but smells too much potential for profit (as well as a show that people actually want to see, as opposed to his dour plays.). Now that he has his team assembled, it's time for P.T. Barnum to put on the greatest show. Jackman couldn't get any better in the musical numbers, really giving it everything he's got and having the benefit of not having to go outside his vocal range like his did in Les Misérables. It's a thrilling performance to watch, though the character frankly is quite underdeveloped (especially in the middle section of the film.). Efron makes a welcome bounce back after the disastrous Baywatch, and gets to play a more likable character (which is made easier by the fact that Carlysle never existed.). Rebecca Fergusson finally gets a chance to impress people again after one disappointing follow up to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation after another, this time by wowing us with her pipes (which would be even more impressive if it was actually her voice, but it's still better than her dull turn in Life), and every time Michelle Williams appears in any film she leaves you thinking "Why isn't she in everything?" Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is utterly charming as the young acrobat and love interest for Efron, and the whole movie is stolen by Keala Settle as Annie The Bearded Lady, who gets the most memorable song, "This Is Me."

Unfortunately,  the numbers sometimes feels too  heavy on choreography (and stock choreography at that), and the desire to make a full blown musical with so many songs really leaves little time for storytelling. So many details are glossed over that it can be quite maddening (we see animals, including a rather silly scene involving Barnum riding an elephant, but never learn anything about how they were obtained or kept, which is also a calculated move to gloss over more unflattering aspects of Barnum). Director Michael Gracey does fine with his debut film, especially because he has seasoned cinematographer Seamus MacGarvey (The Hours, Anna Karennina and The Avengers) to make him look good, but he is definitely missing a sense of pollish. Some numbers look better than others, and it time he seems to really be struggling to make things visually interesting and trying a bit too hard (the romantic number  "Rewrite the Stars" is a bit too frenetic, though  red it us due for the only major attempt at being innovative.). Gracey lacks the inspired quality of a Damien Chaz Elle or Rob Marshall, or even the sickness of Joel Schumacher, (at least when it comes to shot composition.). This may seem harsh, and I wouldn't say the film is badly directed. It just didn't soar.

The Greatest Showman is a crowd pleaser that will have plenty of fans, and may actually be more popular with the musical theatre crowd than  La La Land (which I though was far superior but was definitely geared more to cinephiles, and there's no doubt the singing here is stronger), but if you leave the film thinking it is truly great, I dare you to study up just a little on the real Barnum and feel entirely good about the glowing portrayal of a great man, champion of the downtrodden and (in the end) great father and husband we see here. He certainly wasn't without his strengths and his contributions to the world of entertainment go far beyond what we even see in the film, but he's more deserving of a biopic along the lines of The Aviator, and love for this movie really requires an ability to be totally at ease with separating it from the real story. All of that being said, I'm listening to the stirring soundtrack even as a type, so however you feel about the movie, it's likely that I can't entirely disagree with you.
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.




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