***1/2 out of ****
(for thematic elements, including a brawl)
Released: December 20, 2017
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameran Seely
Get your freak on.
That’s the tenet of The Greatest Showman, an exhilarating mainstream entertainment with inspiring uplift.
It’s an axiom proudly proclaimed in the most literal sense (not lurid), an original movie musical about entertainment pioneer P.T. Barnum (he coined the phrase “show business”) that shows grace and respect to the societal pariahs who’ve been shunned to the fringes. The only thing it shames is shaming itself.
Starring Hugh Jackman as the circus ringleader, The Greatest Showman is a Broadway caliber musical brought to the multiplex masses with nearly the same degree of live theatre satisfaction. It succeeds on all levels by exceeding expectations.
What first appears to be a surface-level allegory for all types of outcasts goes beyond Pollyanna affirmations to more complex, challenging territory, with moral complications, compromises, and unexpected betrayals. In a beautiful irony, The Greatest Showman isn’t simply a contrived comeuppance of the narrow-minded elite; it’s a parable about the dangers of chasing applause and acceptance on society’s terms.
Intentionally or not, the script’s construct follows the blueprint of Disney’s animated musicals from the 1990s Golden Age: take an existing narrative (either fiction or real life) then dramatically refashion its details around a specific thematic core. In that spirit, this is far from the true story of P.T. Barnum (and don’t Google it if you want maintain this film’s illusion) but how it fictionalizes his story – and why – earns the broad artistic license it takes.
A first rate production on all fronts, it’s the songs by Ben Pasek and Justin Paul that give this extravaganza its heart and soul. Oscar and Tony winners for (respectively) La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, these celebrated pop tunesmiths are reinvigorating the genre across multiple mediums.
These songs resonate as deeply in lyrics as in music, poetically capturing both ideas and passions, while also being among the duo’s most instantly catchy. Pasek & Paul are a Kander & Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and Lerner & Loewe (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon) for the 21st Century.
The cast is equal to the craft. Few can ooze such exuberant charisma or charm as Hugh Jackman can, and then convey vulnerable depths with heartfelt sincerity, particularly within an oversized theatrical milieu.
Michelle Williams absolutely radiates as Barnum’s wife (it’s so refreshing to see her shine in something other than a gritty indie), Zac Efron returns to his musical roots with confidence and maturity, and Zandaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is not only a bright rising star but a serious talent. Keala Settle is also a standout as the bearded lady, especially when she anchors the crucial anthem “This Is Me”.
There’s a moment early on when I knew first-time director Michael Gracey, a former visual effects supervisor, could conjure more than just song-and-dance spectacle (which, in itself, is no easy task). A young Barnum is thrown to the streets and, well, to not spoil the moment, I’ll simply say he receives an unexpected act of kindness, one that serves as the first catalyst for the people Barnum would come to embrace and champion. Caught off guard, I was instantly choked up and moved.
The rest of the film fulfills that promise.
It’s not often that a movie-going experience elicits audible “wow”s and credit-roll cheers; when it does, it’s a testament to being the best of what Hollywood has to offer. The Greatest Showman is exactly that. It digs deep thematically, delivers emotionally, and artistically soars.