It’s the film that everyone’s talking about, the family musical must-see of the season. After having (finally) gotten around to watching it, I have to ask why?
The debut of Australian director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman is a semi-biographical musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, the iconic circus ringmaster and people-pleaser of the 1800s. The film chronicles his ambition to create an anything-goes circus featuring a cast of unique stars including the Bearded Lady, Tom Thumb, and the Dog Man. But the price of success is higher than Barnum ever imagined and soon his ambition is driving him away from his dreams rather than towards them.
To quote my friend fakegamerb0y, The Greatest Showman is a “Baz Luhrmann musical not done by Baz Luhrmann”. Perhaps if Luhrmann had made it, it might have worked better. The film has a number of core problems, the biggest being that so much emphasis is put into the spectacle and the ‘showmanship’ of it that all three-dimensional characters and their arcs are sacrificed. The musical numbers are thrown in to further the plot seemingly without the understanding that there needs to be a plot already established to further. As it turns out, the only character given any real treatment is Barnum’s while everyone else stands behind him flatly commenting on the weather. There are a number of lines within the film that would have actually had an emotional impact if they had been backed up by any sort of character development, but as it happens the entire narrative progresses as spasmodically as its musical sequences only without the flair.
We have seen successful instances where a musical has been set in an earlier period and have a soundtrack of modern songs – Moulin Rouge! anyone? Sadly this film missed the mark. While the songs themselves were catchy and quite good, they were stagnantly out of place and contrasted against the period backdrop.
But to give credit where it’s due this movie is called The Greatest Showman and that’s exactly what it is, a show. All emphasis is on the large musical numbers, frisky and enthusiastic choreography, hair, makeup, and costume design. All of this made the film very pretty, a stylised and visual treat, but nothing more than a feast for the eyes that provides no further sustenance.
I will admit that there is a funny side in all of this. Despite the things that made this movie disappointing for me, The Greatest Showman has an ironic sort of mirror thing happening in that it’s the talk of the town, but not made up of anything culturally or critically amazing. The film’s protagonist himself said that people -whether they care to admit it or not- are drawn to the weird and macabre –the fundamentally cheap or lowbrow and seeing as this movie is amongst the most popular films in cinemas right now, it’s obviously doing something right – it’s snagged an Oscar nomination after all.