Life is all about expectations. Entertainment is all about finding things to meet those expectations. Phineas Taylor (later known as P.T.) Barnum (Hugh Jackman) grew up knowing people expected him to be quiet and know his place as a tailor’s son. All he wanted was to surpass their expectations. Oh, and to prove himself worthy of Charity Hallett’s heart, the daughter of the wealthy family down the street.
One of the problems with expectations is that you can defy them, deny them, or fail to meet them – rarely is there a neutral outcome, or is anyone’s happiness part of the equation.
The Greatest Showman, the new musical extravaganza from director Michael Gracey, follows Barnum as he tries to rise above expectations. First by getting the girl (Michelle Williams), then risking it all on Barnum’s American Museum, which started out as a wax museum before transforming into a “freak” and oddities show, and ultimately, creating the circus for which he’s famous. There’s a quote from another movie, The Imitation Game, that struck me while watching this: “it’s the people that no one imagines anything of that does what no one can imagine.” Barnum was someone people thought would disappear and instead he changed how we acknowledge the things that scare us.
Barnum, in pre-Civil War New York City, brings together people that are shunned from society. Though the movie doesn’t dwell on any of their individual struggles, and I’d love to say that children today won’t understand why these people would stand out, but the more things change… We follow this troupe through Barnum’s attempt to make them popular, and then his attempt to make them accepted to high brow society. The lengths he goes to do things no one can imagine starts to make him seem ahead of his time. However, once he reaches those heights to which he aspired, the true person he was gets overshadowed by the façade of who he thinks he must now be. Thankfully, we already know how the story ends, so it’s the process that matters throughout.
Hugh Jackman has been given material directly in his wheelhouse, reminding us how much he loves performing – dancing, singing, and becoming the showman. I’ll admit I went into this apprehensive after Les Miserables, but this is extremely different and he’s very well-suited to all of it. The supporting cast is wonderful as well, from Lettie Lutz – the bearded lady (Keala Settle) to Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). A smaller story line involves Barnum’s protege, Phillip Carlyle (an all grown-up Zac Efron). Carlyle comes from the world Barnum wants to infiltrate and Barnum’s hoping the association will raise his own reputation. Through Carlyle we see acceptance of a different kind of world. Not only does he fall in love with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a trapeze artist who is African-American, but must also fight for the acceptance of Barnum’s troupe after the show’s creator goes on tour with an opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), in hopes of making her famous and adding respectability to the Barnum name in the process.
Overall, The Greatest Showman far exceeded my very low expectations. The song writers also brought us La La Land last year and much of that film’s aspirational feeling is perpetuated throughout these songs as well – many of the tunes seem to only be trying to tell us that aspiration is sufficient. However, the movie doesn’t really follow the rules of a musical (stage or film), and the songs all have a very similar power ballad feeling. Generally, that works for me, but the gimmick song, or the deeply sad song, or the understudy making good song was missing. The whole film was at the same 8 out of 10 feeling of tension and excitement, without an influx of humor or pathos. The dancing and CGI are impressive throughout and you’ll likely want to take a young person interested in dance or theater or being a star to see this movie, and I’m pretty sure they won’t be disappointed.