‘There’s something breaking at the brick of every wall it’s holding I’ll let you know. So tell me do you want to go?’ Hugh Jackman belts in the new musical drama The Greatest Showman and frankly after seeing the film last week, I can confidently say: no I don’t want to go.
So, what was it about the film that failed to captivate me when it so desperately tried? Honestly… all of it. I went into this film with moderately high hopes, as a lover of musicals and a sucker for a good life-affirming story The Greatest Showman should have been a hit. Instead, I left the cinema with a sour taste in my mouth, that had nothing to do with the large popcorn and nachos I had just demolished.
Following the life of P.T Barnum, we see a poor unsatisfied child, grow into a poor unsatisfied adult. Barnum is constantly in search of a better life even after winning the heart of his childhood love Charity (Michelle Williams) and raising two happy daughters with her. His family has all they want in him but he wants more, unable to shake the chip on his shoulder. It is this pursuit that leads to the creation of ‘P.T Barnum’s American Museum’ which later developed into what we know as a circus. Along the way, he acquires a gaggle of performers or ‘freaks’ to take centre stage in his show including Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) an African American trapeze artist and a bearded lady portrayed by Keala Settle. Later he meets Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) a playwright regarded highly within society and endeavours him to join the show. Carlyle seemingly does no writing for the show and is there solely to attempt to boost the Circus’ social status and gain Barnum the respect he unashamedly craves.
The plot did not commit to any character and I was unsure whose story this was as we flitted aimlessly between Barnum’s frustrated ambition, Carlyle’s budding relationship with Wheeler and the plight of the ‘freaks’ as they fought against overwhelming prejudice and disgust directed towards them. It is the latter’s story who I would have liked to have spent more time with and would have enjoyed being able to understand the struggles these characters had undergone before Barnum entered their lives and what meeting him had meant for them. Instead, he himself began to shun them in his pursuit of more, leaving Carlyle to pick up the pieces as the dream comes crashing down and all seems lost. In a quick resolution in the final five minutes, after nearly losing everything he loves, Barnum undergoes a blink and you’ll miss it change of heart and decides to hang up his ringmaster’s hat and dedicate his time to his family. At this point in the film, I had completely checked out emotionally with regards to Barnum and was quite disappointed that Charity took him back so quickly.
Besides a couple of standout tracks including golden globe winner ‘This is me’ which also provided one of the only emotionally investing moments of the film, the rest of the songs seemed hashed in. The combination of modern music in a period setting seemed like a desperate attempt to get modern audiences onboard but instead took me completely out of the story as I cringed through entire musical numbers as we were force fed one shallow pop song after the next. I half expected to see a little person composited into the bottom corner of the screen holding up a sign with emotions printed telling the audience exactly what emotion we were meant to feel now.
In the film’s defence, it featured strong performances from Williams and Jackson. With him carrying a few stumbling plot points through to their resolution with flair. However, that has more to do with the fact he seems to the greatest living showman himself rather than it being the result of the character he was portraying. The production design was also enjoyable with elaborate costumes and stunning sets, but 139 minutes of a pretty face just isn’t enough.
P.T Barnum was said to dupe his audiences with faux spectacles and The Greatest Showman stays true to his legacy in that sense. It promised a spectacular extravaganza with heart but instead delivered a mediocre display lacking any true depth.