“This is me!!” as the Bearded Lady sings. And boy, does The Greatest Showman drives that statement home. The latest in the reinvented genre of original movie musicals, this film follows a tradition that includes An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge and La La Land, whose songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have once again collaborated to bring you this wonderful hit!
We follow P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to better his life, family, and standings by creating the most famous circus in the world. In the process, he not only succeeds, but gives the people he hires a home, bringing them out of the shadows they have hid in their entire life, allowing them to finally stand tall and proud. He also teaches his young partner (Zac Efron) how to open his eyes, follow his heart and live without regret.
There is an overall element to this film of change. Change always makes people afraid, because it’s destroying society’s idea of normality. Not to mention it’s uncertainty. But this film embraces it wholeheartedly, particularly in it’s themes of equality. That theme is prevalent in Barnum’s childhood, the so-called “freaks” of his show, as well as the love story between Zac Efron’s character and a young trapeze artist (Zendaya). This is all the while the upper class are presented as snobs who are stuck in the past.
There are two characters that seem to be wonderful medians between the two, and because of this, are torn. Michelle William’s Charity Barnum is one such character. Her ethereal presence absolutely lights up the screen, and her soft voice strikes right to your emotional core. She is a dutiful wife, loving mother, but she is also the daughter of a wealthy couple. But as the story progresses, Charity doesn’t quite know if she is still a partner in P.T.’s life or has fallen into the background, shadowed by his ambition. Her solo, “Tightrope” identifies this with grace, but questioning whether or not she is a remnant of the past herself. The other is the local critic, James Gordon Bennett. He is a fascinating character, at first despising Barnum and his show, coining it as “humbug” and “circus”; the latter appealed to Barnum. However as the film progresses, Bennett comes to almost respect Barnum, saying that “while the show is not art, one could call it a celebration of humanity.” And this is the pinnacle of his character, collapsing the entirety of the film itself into one phrase.
This film is beautifully shot, whimsical,and could remind one of the style of Moulin Rouge. It’s hyper-realistic, where reality seems to interlink with a dream. It could be said that since the film is not historically accurate, that it could be the dream of how P.T. saw the world in his head as a child. And why not, the song vocalized by young Barnum remarks, “I think of what the world could be, the vision of the one I see.” Could the filmmaker’s have taken that idea and ran with it?
In the end, it’s a stylish feel-good film with a message. And despite it’s stellar cast, awards season might be out of its range, with the exception of original song and production design. There aren’t really any stand out performances that warrant recognition. However, it will be a box office draw at Christmas time, particularly for families and couples. In fact, the studio couldn’t have picked a better time to release it. Not only did Ringling Barnum and Bailey’s Circus play its final performance this year after over one hundred fifty years of shows, but the holiday season is known for allowing people to come together despite differences. In a film that praises differences, it’s a match made in heaven! The question is, will it last going up against a box office juggernaut such as Star Wars?