SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss elements of plot and character. If you want to see the movie with a blank slate, please watch the film before reading this review.
Coming back from the theater after seeing The Greatest Showman, the music continued to run through my mind. The songs are incredibly catchy, and they are performed with pizzazz and vigor by this extremely talented cast. Hugh Jackman leads the way as the titular showman, P.T. Barnum. Michelle Williams and Zac Efron also bring their considerable talents to the screen. Personally, I thought the star of the show was Zendaya as one of Barnum's trapeze artists. The singing is strong, as is the choreography. It all makes for a spectacle worthy of the film's title.
But I wonder what, if anything, lies behind the spectacle.
This film makes attempts at deeper themes - which I must give it credit for. Lesser films would be content to string together a group of catchy songs with flashy camera work and showstopping choreography. At least The Greatest Showman tries to find the deeper meaning within the story of P.T. Barnum. I'm just not sure it succeeds.
In reality, Barnum was considered an exhibitionist, blatantly profiting off of those who society considered grotesque and beneath them. This film doesn't seem to be especially eager to deal with some of the darker aspects of Barnum's story. Rather, he is held up as a vision of the American dream - a man who came from nothing and built his own success story. I want to be fair, the film's plot isn't so cut-and-dry. It definitely does subvert that story at times by attempting to showcase the emptiness of Barnum's success and by giving ample screentime to Barnum's performers. Personally, I just felt that it could have been a stronger film if it had leaned into the reality of Barnum's story a little more and considered some of the nuanced discussions at play.
The movie goes for the more formulaic biopic approach of beginning with Barnum's childhood and taking us through his adult years. We see how Barnum came from a meager background, but he always had dreams for more. He begins to see those dreams materialize in the person of Charity Hallett (played as a young girl by Skylar Dunn then by Williams for the remainder of the movie) - whom Barnum later marries. Her father (Fred Lehne) doesn't believe that Barnum will amount to much of anything, and this becomes the proverbial chip on Barnum's shoulder.
From there, we see Barnum building his empire of entertainment at the same time as his family is growing. The tenderness of early scenes with his wife and young girls gives way to his blatant need to be accepted by the masses. He wants to make enough money that all those who doubted him will have no recourse. That he does, especially after joining forces with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Efron).
Here lies what is one of my favorite choices that this film makes. It showcases the bitter emptiness of chasing applause. Director Michael Gracey chooses at various points throughout the film to drown out the applause to create the sense of silence. We see the masses clapping, but we hear nothing at first. Then, the sound gradually builds. It is a subtle reminder of a theme that will be underlined by a song later in the film from opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) - that the cheers and applause will never be enough.
My favorite performer in the film is easily Zendaya. As one of Barnum's trapeze artists, she has some of the film's most poignant moments - especially after Carlyle is injured in a fight and ensuing fire at Barnum's circus. She and Efron also join on my favorite song in the film - "Rewrite the Stars." It is clear that Zendaya is a budding star with considerable vocal and acting talents. I look forward to seeing her in more roles in the future.
I'm also a fan of how the film chooses to close its story. After all the pomp and circumstance, we see Barnum as he reunites with his estranged family, realizing that everything he needs is right in front of him. The fame and the applause are not as important as the simple moments with his family. I think that is a powerful message, indeed.
Still, I couldn't completely buy into The Greatest Showman. Barnum's story is one of the ability to hoodwink people, to give them a spectacle that dulls their senses for a while. This film gives an undertaking worthy of Barnum himself, but you'll have to excuse me if I don't want to join in with the facade. Overall, I think this is a good film for its music, first and foremost, and also for its closing note about the importance of family.
Note on content: Some of the female characters wear somewhat revealing outfits in the context of the circus, but there is no overt sexual content and no nudity whatsoever. There is also a major storyline where Barnum is accused of infidelity but no more than a kiss is shown. One song ("The Other Side") contains profanity, but there are no other instances throughout the film. There is some minor violence in a fight and ensuing fire at Barnum's circus. Overall, this is a family-friendly movie that should have everyone singing along even after the credits roll.