The Greatest Showman believes in its own ability to entertain, and makes a fun but empty musical.
The Greatest Showman fictionalizes the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), famous for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. As a poor young apprentice, Barnum meets the wealthy Charity (Michelle Williams). When they marry years later, Barnum strives to give her and their children the best life possible. Following various business ventures, he eventually creates a circus in which he finally finds success.
Unsurprisingly, as a musical, The Greatest Showman‘s musical numbers are the film’s strongest asset. Everything outside the musical numbers are a complete waste, and it relies so heavily on the music that it is not completely able to redeem itself. However, the musical numbers are upbeat enough, with fantastic performances and visuals, that they are able to carry the movie enough to be a fun experience.
The story for The Greatest Showman is a prototypical success narrative with no real substance. It tries to infuse various inspirational messages, but they are all superficial, mostly there to escalate drama. The film also struggles to carry multiple storylines, and ultimately fails all of them.
The strongest storyline in the film is Barnum’s relationship with his daughters. This initially grounds the film, but eventually gets tossed aside. While there is not much to the story, the emotion behind it feels genuine, and makes Barnum’s ambitions feel earned. Barnum does stray from his initial goals, and unfortunately, the movie also loses focus.
The Greatest Showman actually begins with Barnum and Charity as children, and after they’ve grown up, the song they sang as children is reprised by Barnum’s daughters. This initially frames the movie through the eyes of children, which helped to give the movie a special energy. This is when the story is at its strongest, and it loses power as the movie shifts focus.
The commercials depict the romance between Zac Efron’s character, a playwright whom Barnum recruits to help with the circus, and Zendaya’s character, a trapeze artist, as a major storyline. Unfortunately, there is much less to their story in the movie than implied by the commercials.
With talented performers such as Efron and Zendaya, they should have been given much more to do. The film creates a star-crossed romance, but there is no real emotional depth between the two. This likely comes from the fact that the two barely share any dialogue before their fantastic song in which they profess their love for each other.
Their song, “Rewrite the Stars,” is wonderfully executed with terrific performances and beautiful choreography paired with equally lovely cinematography, but it does not feel earned. They are not even given the chance to prove whether or not they have chemistry.
Almost all the songs effectively move the story forward, except the one sung by Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer whom Barnum introduces to America after her fame in Europe. While the songs are beautiful, and prove that it does not really make a difference if an actor’s singing voice is dubbed, they detract from the story.
As a whole, Lind’s storyline has far too much weight. While it is an interesting story, in how Barnum did more than just create a circus, it distracts from the livelier story following the circus. The film already fabricates enough of Barnum’s biography; it did not have to include this.
Her song “Never Enough,” sung by Loren Allred, does have thematic importance, and is a much-needed variation from the other songs, but ultimately serves no purpose in the narrative, besides the fact that it is part of Lind’s performance.
The songs in The Greatest Showman were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters behind the 2017 Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen and the lyricists of La La Land. While the music is the film’s greatest strength, on its own it is not too impressive. The music is only successful paired with dynamic performances and beautiful cinematography.
Unfortunately, the songs all blend together and are difficult to remember after leaving the theater. The music is an uninspired combination of pop and musical theater influences, that while upbeat and fun, is also unexceptional. The music is powerful in the film because so much of the story and emotion is carried through the songs. It is a marvelous spectacle to see the performances, which are the only thing making the film worthwhile.
There is a scene in the film in which Barnum discusses with a theater critic whether it is important for the circus to be substantive when it brings people such joy. The Greatest Showman definitely takes this sentiment to heart, essentially basing the entire film on the thesis that joyful entertainment does not require substance. At least, it is unapologetic and is not trying to be something that it is not. The Greatest Showman takes its flaws in stride, knowing where its strengths lay.