As is tradition, last week my family and I saw a movie for Christmas. Our choice, something that we were all eager to see, was The Greatest Showman. Exciting enough alone on the promise of an original musical, the film delivers incredible music and great performances from a stellar cast. The writing….well, it needed to show us a little more to really earn some of its moments.
But let’s dive in, shall we? Remember, there will be spoilers, so don’t let me ruin the show for you.
I’m not sure if The Greatest Showman’s packed story caused its writing problems, but it probably didn’t help. We start off with a young boy with a dream, ready to rise above his station out of poverty and into something magical. And he does that…and finishes about halfway through the movie. That story could have been stretched out and been the whole movie by itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the movie follows the setup of Barnum’s circus, but also follows him as a character. The problem is that the movie doesn’t give us enough to see Barnum as he’s being seen by the other characters, leading to a bit of a disconnect in why certain things are happening. For example, Barnum is supposed to be a little bit of a trickster. We see this when he uses sunken ships that aren’t his as collateral for a loan, and when he accentuates a few of the “freaks’” features. But we never see why his audience thinks the worse of him. They have no reason to know of the circus’s less-than-truthful monetary origins. Sure, maybe they figure out a few of the “oddities” aren’t quite what they seem, but you still have the bearded lady, Zendaya and her brother, and a few other acts that are “legit.” So how did Barnum garner his poor reputation in-universe?
It’s this reputation that pushes him to partner with upper-class theater producer Phillip Carlyle. Carlyle has the type of reputation Barnum wants, but other than that, we never see what Carlyle brings to the table. I guess he might do some planning? Maybe his name helps a little in advertising? The only concrete thing we see him do to help is introduce Barnum to European singer Jenny Lind, and he even admits he doesn’t actually know her. Carlyle is a great character to have, but there’s no reason to really have him, other than to have him be a kind-of foil to Barnum (which doesn’t amount to any friction or other problems) and to fall in love with Zendaya.
As Barnum continues to try to improve his reputation, things get shakier. At one of Lind’s performances, Barnum confronts his rich father-in-law, trying to show how much he’s changed from the poor son of a tailor. Barnum having an obsession with higher status isn’t a problem, but it just doesn’t come up until about halfway through the film, where up until now he’s just been a “dreamer” character. It’s a quality that makes sense knowing his background, but that didn’t manifest until he actually gained some status. While he’s obsessed with himself, he shuns his performers, leading them to sing a rousing number about being yourself. And then they go right back to Barnum when he’s drunk and sad. Listen, this is nice of them, but Barnum never shows that he’s learned a lesson, and never even really apologizes. The only “punishment” for any of his bad behavior (other than his wife temporarily and rightfully leaving him) is when some of the judgmental townspeople burn down the circus, another thing that we talk about some, but don’t really spend a lot of time with. His wife leaving and the circus burning aren’t even related to him rejecting the “freaks,” so really he learned nothing from it.
Though the writing is sometimes thin in the latter half, it’s easy to forget when you’re watching the musical performances. With music written by La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, each song is engaging and emotional, whether it’s the percussion- and adrenaline-filled “The Greatest Show” and “The Other Side” or the softer “A Million Dreams” and “Tightrope.” The latter two songs are also a great example of the good staging in the performances. “A Million Dreams” gives us two children sharing excitement and dreams culminating in them dancing among billowing sheets on a rooftop, now married adults. “Tightrope” then gives us a sad reprise, with Michelle Williams dancing with an imaginary form of her husband as the curtains blow in her lonely home.
The performances from the cast, musical or otherwise, also make the movie worthwhile. Hugh Jackman is an obviously strong leading man, with Michelle Williams as a great supportive and eager wife (even if I did think she was Renée Zellweger for most of the movie; my mom though she was Christina Applegate). Quick sidenote, it would have been so, so easy for her character to be the “you have to be realistic don’t follow your dreams” wife character and I was so glad she was along for shenanigans. I’m also glad Zac Efron is in a role I can actually care about again, and his love story with Zendaya could also have been another movie in itself. This does remind me of two more things the movie lacked, however. Though I’m glad the movie touched on the era’s racism, it was mostly just something that was mentioned with no real importance until it (helps) influence a fight at the circus. Also, can we leave the trend of casting Zendaya in movies and then only having her speak five lines in 2017?
I don’t mean to sound too negative about the movie; I did really enjoy it. The problems I do have with it are just too easy to see in my mind, but they don’t ruin the film for me, or even make it bad. The cast is fantastic, and I’m sure I’ll have a few songs from the soundtrack on my Spotify Most Played Songs of 2018. It has a few issues, but The Greatest Showman really is a fun night at the theater.