Film Critic Matt Taylor falls for the fantasy of The Greatest Showman, Hollywood’s latest musical starring Hugh Jackman
The Greatest Showman is Hugh Jackman’s passion project. An original musical that tells the story of circus founder PT Barnum, the fact that it’s been in development since 2009 is a testament to just how much it means to him – now, eight years later, it’s finally here, and, unlike many projects that spend so long in development, it’s actually rather good.
That it’s an original musical (rather than a jukebox one, which the studio pressured Jackman and first-time director Michael Gracey to do) is among the film’s greatest strengths; the songs are simply wonderful. Each one inspires a smile when coupled with the film’s gorgeous choreography and cinematography. ‘This Is Me’ is the standout, a powerhouse of an anthem that is nothing less than a celebration of humanity; ‘The Greatest Show’ opens and closes the film in spectacular fashion; ‘Rewrite the Stars’ is a gorgeous love song, while ‘Tightrope’ is quieter and more emotional than anything else from the score, but just as excellent.
No matter how good the songs are, though, the film would fall entirely flat if it didn’t have a good cast – an issue that doesn’t once plague Showman. Jackman is an absolute joy – he brings an optimism to Barnum so infectious that we can’t help but be swept along by his enthusiasm, and root for him even when the sheer scale of his ambition poses a threat to his family life. Also wondrously charming is Zac Efron in the role of (fictional) protégé Phillip Carlyle. As with the film itself, the music is Efron’s greatest strength – his duet with Jackman oozes chemistry, and his romance with Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler is brought to life through their song ‘Rewrite the Stars’, set to a gorgeous trapeze sequence. Michelle Williams plays Barnum’s wife Charity with equal parts hope and despair, longing for him to succeed but being wary of his ambition becoming too great, and her chemistry with Jackman carves out a believable and investable love story. Rounding out the main cast is Rebecca Ferguson, playing Swedish singer Jenny Lind, much of whose real-life story is fabricated here to give Barnum more pitfalls to be wary of and obstacles to overcome. The rest of the cast (including Zendaya, Keala Settle and Sam Humphrey) all put in good performances, even if there isn’t a lot of character development to go around.
What the film does brilliantly, though, is to perfectly capture the joy of the Barnum’s shows. The whole affair is exhilarating, leaving you with a huge smile on your face – but that’s all it does. There’s little to think about afterwards – although you may be dizzy from the fun of it all, there’s nothing to ponder or consider. In fact, the more thought you give it, the more flaws you see, but it all feels like we’re watching one of Barnum’s circuses in context. It’s exciting, it’s joyful, it’s wondrous, it’s deliriously good fun, and it just leaves you feeling good. If the noblest art is that of making others happy, then The Greatest Showman is the noblest of all.
Verdict: While not every narrative decision is perfect, and while there’s little character development in anyone other than Barnum himself, there’s no denying the joy The Greatest Showman brings. “Do these smiles look fake to you?” They certainly do not.