P.T. Barnum always has been regarded as a great entrepreneur and show business pioneer who saw things no one else did, perhaps realizing the business was just one big circus. The new musical The Greatest Showman avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics to become more of a fantasia of song and dance, a joyous exercise in pure entertainment that is made for the holiday crowd. If it doesn’t get swallowed up by other family fare like another Jumanji, another Star Wars, another Pixar toon and even Fox’s own Ferdinand, audiences will discover than true rarity: an original movie musical.
La La Land proved, with a much more sophisticated palette last year, that there is a strong appetite for something different in what was thought to be an endangered genre in Hollywood. The Greatest Showman, with a great boost from Oscar-winning La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a sensational celebration of a beloved movie staple with new twists and a massive song score that bridges contemporary pop with Broadway. That’s something the duo knows well, having won the Tony this year for their smash Dear Evan Hansen. But as I say in my video review above, this Jackman-fronted musical ,that marks the impressive feature directorial debut of music video maestro Michael Gracey ,offers exactly what fans of the genre crave: deliciously tappable musical numbers and likable characters.
Smartly, the filmmakers — who include screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (the latter directed the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Dreamgirls and wrote the film version of Chicago) — also know how to keep a four-quadrant family musical from sinking into Chitty territory by employing devices that also will please the Broadway crowd, particularly the Bob Fosse-like opening number as well as sensational choreography throughout. Also a big plus is avoiding the politically incorrect use of a lot of live circus animals in favor of limited CGI versions.
The thrust of this film, though, is not the traditional circus circuit but rather the Oddities, characters on the outskirts who show their humanity: the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) and Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) in addition to the likes of the Strong Man, Dog Boy and a glorious trapeze artist named Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), who is a love interest for Barnum’s partner Phillip, played nicely by Zac Efron in his best screen outing in a long while. Michelle Williams is also a wholesome presence as Barnum’s wife and proves to be more than a serviceable singer (but didn’t we know that from Broadway’s Cabaret revival?). Everyone does their own singing with the exception of Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind and has a show-stopping number that brings lip syncing to the height of art. But Settle steals the show with her rendition of the Oddities anthem “This Is Me,” a show stopper if there ever was one. Settle got a Tony nomination for Hands on a Hardbody and proves that stage electricity also can be plugged into movies.
Although we haven’t seen a big circus-based movie musical since, well, Doris Day in 1962’s Jumbo (or at least one that I can fondly recall), this is thankfully a fun one that fires on all cylinders without being cynical or pretentious. Jackman was born to play this role, and he knows it. It is worth catching if you care about original movie musicals at all. No, it is not La La Land, but it is not meant to be and it fits the bill nicely for 2017. Barnum himself would have loved the tribute. Producers are Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, and Jenno Topping. 20th Century Fox releases the film today.
Do you plan to see The Greatest Showman? Let us know what you think.