The curtain opens on a silhouette of a ringmaster as the music plays. The figure dances underneath packed bleachers before ending up in the spotlight, surrounded by a colorful cast of characters spectacularly dancing and flying from ropes and trapeze wires. This is the opening of the “The Greatest Showman” and is it a visual and auditory sensation. If it maintained that level, the film would be quite something. Unfortunately, the stunning musical numbers are held together by a very lightweight story.
“The Greatest Showman” is a starring vehicle for Hugh Jackman and, as usual, this versatile actor shines. He is a song and dance man of the first order, which might come as a shock to those who know him only as Wolverine in various incarnations. Here he plays legendary huckster Phineas Taylor Barnum. Jackman’s charm dominates the movie.
“Showman” is entertaining enough, especially to fans of musicals, but it suffers from being all surface and no depth. My partner Ramona said it reminded her of a child’s pop-up book — a visually beautiful pop-up book to be sure, but one that is easily digested without much thought.
In real life, Barnum was a complex huckster who was more exploitative of his freaks and oddities than the movie suggests. In 1835, he paid $1,000 for an elderly slave named Joice Heth, claiming she was 161 years old and a former nurse for George Washington, Barnum exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in an estimated $1,500 a week. The movie also misrepresents “General Tom Thumb,” one of Barnum’s prize draws, as an adult when he was, in actuality only four-years old.
The feel of the movie seems like it would be a solid stage show, although Barnum’s story was covered more thoroughly in the 1980 Broadway hit “Barnum.” It also has elements of Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge” with its anachronistic music, but lacks that movie’s edginess.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 51 percent rating and that is just about right. It is average. The story seems like just an excuse to get to another musical number. The storyline with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), which was an important part of Barnum’s career, is woefully underdeveloped. His romance with his wife Charity, played by Michelle Williams is equally under-explored. Williams is charming and does a good job in a thankless role which wastes her talents.
The cast of sideshow characters, led by Keela Settle as Lettie the Bearded Lady, are the soul off the film, and the musical numbers crackle. There is a love story between Anne the trapeze artist, played by Zendaya, and the rich-boy-giving-it-all-up-for-the-excitement-of-the-circus Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. They get a wonderful musical number utilizing the circus ropes, but it is just another set piece around an underdeveloped story.
“The Greatest Showman” is a visual feast and the costumes are magnificent, but it is really just a frothy confection which leaves the audience unsatisfied and hungry for something just a little more filling.
“The Greatest Showman: is rated PG.