It’s never a great sign when many aspects of a film have been done better elsewhere, which is the case with the Hugh Jackman-starring musical The Greatest Showman
In it, Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, a showman in the late 1800s, and he’s unsurprisingly charming. But Jackman has played almost this exact role before with far more complexity and emotional vigor in The Prestige. If one has seen the Christopher Nolan film, it’s difficult to watch The Greatest Showman without thinking of it.
Television spots will also make sure that the general public knows that the songwriters on this film are the Oscar-winning duo behind La La Land. And while there are some rousing numbers, such as the popular “This Is Me,” the music never really plants itself in viewers’ minds as each piece feels overdone and jarringly anachronistic. The seemingly key ingredients that the duo is missing are the musical help of the masterful Justin Hurwitz, composer of La La Land, and a good story.
The music seems to end up emotionally manipulative because the story asks the songs to do the leg work. When key character development is meant to occur, we’re asked to accept it in the form of a song. This can occasionally work when the song is beyond exceptional, such as the gleefully playful and vulnerable “A Lovely Night” or the heart-wrenching “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” both from La La Land. But no song here reaches that kind of level, resulting in what is meant to be an emotional journey falling flat.
“This Is Me” comes close, but that song leads to another issue with the film, which posits itself as a celebration of humanity through outcasts and those who’ve been othered. But, outside of the song, the film never takes the point of view of those characters nor develops them thoroughly. At one point, one of them professes his appreciation for the “family” that Barnum has built. Yet, we haven’t seen much of this family in the first place and we’ve seen too much of Barnum treating them poorly for a redemption to be earned, or for its purported celebration to be earned either.
Strangely, though, it’s difficult to entirely hate the film. It’s not consistently visually dazzling, but it has its moments of pure wonder amid colorful, eye-popping costumes and sets. To go along with that, there’s an undercurrent of a struggle for happiness in every storyline, which latches on, at least loosely. And Zendaya stands out with the most lived-in and genuinely felt performance.
If anything, The Greatest Showman is a film that can bring families to a show, just as Barnum did. That’s worth something.
Featured image 20th Century Fox.