THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
20th Century Fox
Director: Michael Gracey
Screenwriter: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson
Screened at: Fox, NYC, 12/15/17
Opens: December 20, 2017
As illustrated in the movie by Michael Gracey in his debut as director, P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) was never a child who wanted to run away to join the circus. In fact, circus is less on his mind than is his best friend Charity, a charming blond child whose snobbish father wants nothing more than to keep the boy (Ellis Rubin) away from his daughter Charity (Skylar Dunn). For young Phineas Taylor Barnum is poor, treated like dirt, a youth that could have been a subject for the novels of Charles Dickens. In material terms, the lad had nothing—he never forgot that—but to his enormous credit he had a vivid imagination and a willingness to take risks. “The world suffers too much from a limited imagination,” he said while he was working an adding machine in a shipping company that was to go bankrupt. Imagination and the willingness to fail, dust himself off, and start again, led P.T. to carry a name forever associated with the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus. And it must, since the circus ended its days as thirty-six years of protests by PETA, the foremost animal rights organization, finally brought down the one hundred forty-six year reign of the circus after charges of substantial abuse suffered by animals from their trainers. But Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay to “The Greatest Showman,” are not about to take even a smidgen of glory from the likes of their title character.
Growing up, P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams), his childhood sweetheart, though doubtless Barnum’s father-in-law did not attend the wedding, having said goodbye to his new son-in-law, reminding him that after Charity got tired of living in poverty, she would hasten a retreat back home. These words must have affected P.T., for he is determined to pull the two up by their bootstraps, nor did the principal failure of P.T.’s initial foray into the marketplace stop him.
Barnum is lucky to have two young daughters, one becoming an accomplished ballerina, who clue their dad into why his wax museum flopped. The public does not want to see stuffed people, one opined. The public wants life. And Barnum gave the world life in its most spectacular form. Hiring what the public even today might call freaks, he signed on a 750-pound man, a bearded lady, a nine-foot tall man, a dwarf, and more folks who would add to the entertaining of the masses while at the same time fulfilling what director Gracey wants to tell us: that everyone, regardless of freakish looks, voice, height, hirsute level, and more, are like us and deserve absolute equality. (That message seems to have been lost on the current administration one hundred sixty-years later.)
The public, having rejected figures made of wax, headed to what they considered a freak show, though the circus became far more than a place to exhibit folks who look different from most of us and was to evolve into three rings, including the signature trapeze artists and scores of entertainers decked out in lavish colors. The one person who would serve as a symbol of what we consider beauty, Swedish-born Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), is by far the highest paid members of the team and one who demanded payment in advance. She has the voice of a Swedish nightingale, who performed outside the bounds of the circus in the concert halls, bringing audiences to their feet.
Significantly, the circus people are condemned by both the stuffed-shirts and the deplorables. The latter want them to “go home” because “this is our town,” while the snobs oppose just about everyone, including the ringmaster. Significantly, the best known snob, James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), publisher of the New York Herald, serves here as a critic, a guy who tells Barnum to his face that he never liked his shows He trashes the proceedings of the circus as vulgar and offensive. So far as the movie’s PG rating, you’re save to take the kids unless you want the little ones to be protected from adults who engage in brawls, and lead characters like Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a partner in the proceedings, to drink heavy liquor by the bottle.
Every year, we get to see one major musical on film. This time it’s “The Greatest Showman,” whose lyrics and music are not likely to be confused with those of the greatest artists, whether Francis Lloyd Webber or Lerner and Loewe, or Stephen Sondheim. From the opening song, “The Greatest Show,” performed by Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle and Zac Efron, through “Never Enough” from Loren Allred and to the concluding “From Now On” by Jackman, you will hear nothing as memorable as The Phantom of the Opera’s “Angel of Music” and “Point of No Return,” or from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along’s “Never a Day Goes By.” In that regard, “The Greatest Showman” is in the company of the musical that last year won Best Picture for about sixty seconds, La La Land, against which the producers did not want to compete therefore putting off the opening to December 20th of this year.
But chances are you didn’t go to this movie for the songs but for spectacle, and “The Greatest Showman,” obviously an expensive film, is well shot by Seamus McGarvey, with Nathan Crowley’s snazzy production design, and Ellen Mirojnick’s showy costumes. Hugh Jackman stands out in a role that might have us compare to his M.C. run at the 2009 Oscars, but is known throughout the world, even by those who can’t recall his name, as Wolverine. If you pays your money and takes your seats, you cannot legitimately be called a born sucker.
Rated PG. 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+