Movies can surprise at times. It’s not as common in the always-connected world in which we currently live. Audiences know so much about movies they see well before they see them. Everyone is given ample opportunities to view trailers, clips, behind-the-scenes videos, cast interviews, and other attention-grabbing media to help shape decisions. While all this information is helpful, it does strip away a little magic and mystery of the movie-going experience. We all have a comfort zone and types of movies we enjoy, but sometimes it’s best to challenge cinematic convictions.
Such a thought propelled me to the theater over the holiday season, with one goal in mind: Step outside my cinematic comfort zone and see something I would normally skip. So, I bought a ticket to the new musical, “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman. Cinematic musicals are usually a mixed bag. So often it feels like something is lost in the filmed version; there’s an energy and liveliness to live theatre that can never be perfectly replicated onscreen. Whether it be “The Producers,” “Rent” or “Les Miserables,” the stage versions always are superior.
“The Greatest Showman” is an interesting anomaly—an original musical made specifically for the screen. Not knowing a single song or having to deal with the baggage of popular stage versions is actually of great service to the film. There are no previous productions to live up to, no comparisons involved.
The movie follows the rise of P.T. Barnum (Jackman), who goes from adolescent dreamer to master showman in the span of about three songs. We get a quick glimpse into his days as the son of a poor tailor who ends up homeless and desperate to make something of himself. He meets a girl, falls in love, and eventually pulls her from a life of privilege to become his wife. He realizes early on he has no interest in a mundane, ordinary existence. So, when he has an idea to market a variety of interesting performers in a crowd-pleasing stage show, he decides to risk everything to try and create something the world has never seen.
The general public considered Barnum and his performers a freakshow: bearded ladies, little people, the dog boy, and a wide variety of undesirables gain the public’s attention through ridicule. The performers bond and become a family as Barnum successfully parlays his show into a success., which is met with a number of new challenges: critical decimation, a judgemental public and the strain his endeavors place on his family.
None of the problems are particularly troubling; most are just excuses to try and infuse a sugary-sweet confection with a little drama. Hatred, a near-death experience, racism, classism, a crumbling marriage—none is more than a single song away from being solved.
“The Greatest Showman” is a fast-paced film that barely ever stops. The cadence is a rapid fire. There are few moments where filmmakers stop long enough to let a moment settle. P.T. Barnum himself would probably appreciate the commitment to moving things along and leaving the audience wanting more. It also helps mask the general lack of depth in the movie. It’s a show of surfaces, but everything is so beautifully polished I had no problems with its puddle-deep dramatic dealings.
Musical numbers are nicely staged with great choreography and a litany of songs that don’t exactly scream “classic,” but are entertaining toe-tappers. Hugh Jackman is an absolute delight, the kind of old-school song-and-dance man that puts in overtime to make sure audiences are enthralled with whatever is happening onscreen. His supporting cast steps up their game to try and match his energy. Michelle Williams, Zac Efron and Zendaya pull off being likable and bring some earnestness to an overstuffed four-cheese feature.
“The Greatest Showman” is a very watchable, entertaining musical. Historically speaking, it’s about as accurate as a “Transformers” movie. Fun fact: The Autobots didn’t actually help us win World War II and P.T. Barnum was no saint. However, it is a movie desperate to please. If folks are willing to sit through a 90-minute music video with some fun staging, they might be surprised how much they enjoy “The Greatest Showman.”