The Greatest Showman tells the story of the infinitely imaginative P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a man of humble beginnings, who dreams of creating brand new worlds and exciting experiences for audiences to enjoy, going on to invent the circus by putting on spectacular shows which feature a whole assortment of unique outcasts, shunned by society due to their physical oddities. As his “greatest show on earth” grows in popularity, he and his newfound family of performers face violent protesters who lash out against the unique troupe, and Barnum’s pursuit of an upper class opera singer (Rebecca Ferguson) for his show causes a rift between him and his wife (Michelle Williams).
Clearly going back to his musical theatre roots in quite a spectacular fashion, Hugh Jackman is right at home in this all-singing, all-dancing, high energy bonanza and as the carnival pioneer P.T. Barnum, he is a charismatic and supportive lead and Jackman really looks like he’s having the time of his life, singing the songs very well and showing off some perfect dance moves. The rest of the cast also perform admirably, so many of them getting to sing and dance impressively well; although in a slightly superfluous role, Zac Efron channels his High School Musical days and performs all the numbers brilliantly – his duet with Hugh Jackman being a particular highlight. Michelle Williams has her fair share of fun, though her role of “the wife” gradually becomes a bit uninteresting, Rebecca Ferguson is a very valuable addition and Zendaya gets to sing, dance and fly though the air, moving all over the place rather than just sitting still, spouting sarcastic quips like she did in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Keala Settle also belts out the tunes with incredible gusto in her role of the bearded woman and is another major asset to the film.
The expansive soundtrack and all the musical numbers obviously play a huge role in the film and many of the songs are admirably bold, rousing and spectacular, putting on one hell of a show and conjuring up a warm, feelgood atmosphere while the dances are expertly staged and the production and costume design is on-point throughout, showing off plenty of colour. However, there are actually a few too many musical numbers and it can often appear a little overstuffed, sometimes seeming like a case of quantity over quality. A couple of the numbers are a little pointless, a little overproduced, and are only included just for the sake of it, not having as much of a reason to be in the film as the other showstopping numbers.
And while the songs and dances are showcased with aplomb and pizzazz, The Greatest Showman falls short because of its story, which is fairly predictable and doesn’t contain enough genuine emotion – the surface is worthy but the film lacks some substance. It’s a well-worn tale about dreaming big, the importance of family, and celebrating your differences, being comfortable with who you are, but this is a message that we’ve heard several times before and there are plenty of times when the film just seems to be going through the motions, not making enough of an honest, genuine impact; the writing in these scenes often gets quite obvious and unsubtle as well.
The film also starts to drag its feet a little about halfway through as it starts to move away from Barnum and starts to focus more on Zac Efron’s slightly superfluous role and his frowned-upon relationship with Zendaya’s mixed race trapeze artist; this section of the story is a little weak and spending so much time away from Barnum results in a lack of interest as well as a few false finishes at the end.
I’ve heard it said that The Greatest Showman would have been better suited to the stage and I agree to an extent; the musical numbers and all the singing and dancing put something like La La Land to shame but the rest of the film isn’t quite as successful. Personally, I’d say that The Greatest Showman is a much better musical than La La Land (Jackman and Williams are better dancers than Gosling and Stone) but it certainty isn’t as good of a film as it lacks depth and meaning.