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Hugh Jackman as circus founder Phineas Taylor Barnum.

Hugh Jackman as circus founder Phineas Taylor Barnum.

The Greatest Showman is not that great

The songs and choreography pack a punch, but the unconvincing characters and narrative let this musical biopic down.
Dec 29, 2017 5:50 AM

THIS is an old-school musical biopic tweaked for modern-day audiences.

The Greatest Showman takes more than a few liberties with the life story of PT Barnum - founder of the circus that bore his name - but with Hugh Jackman in the title role and looking every inch the consummate showman, it scores points as an upbeat (and thoroughly cheesy) holiday entertainment.

During the course of a colourful career, Phineas Taylor Barnum was driven mostly by a desire to make money, and he achieved it by combining hype and hokum to hoodwink 19th-century audiences (or entertain them, depending on your perspective). In one form or another, his travelling circus, The Greatest Show On Earth, ran for about 150 years until it closed down for good earlier this year.

The film, directed by Michael Gracey from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, is a heavily-sanitised version of reality. In essence, it's a costume spectacle and an album's worth of flashy, slickly-choreographed pop songs and power ballads by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the lyricists who did the same for La La Land (2016). Even though they feel a tad generic, the musical segments are central to the movie's feel-good core.

Barnum's ambitions are encapsulated in A Million Dreams, a catchy anthem where his younger self (played by Ellis Rubin) sings the opening verses before morphing into Jackman: Every night I lie in bed/ the brightest colours fill my head/ a million dreams are keeping me awake/ a million dreams for the world we're gonna make. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but perfect for a family sing-along.

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Barnum is a poor tailor's son who meets Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn as a child, Michelle Williams in grown-up form), his one true love whose wealthy father (Fredric Lehne) doesn't approve of her choice of a lower-class spouse. Naturally, the storyline calls for Barnum to prove him wrong, and to falter before he succeeds.

First, he starts a museum filled with wax models.

"I think you have too many dead things in the museum, Daddy," said Caroline (Austyn Johnson), the older of his two young daughters. "You need something sensational."

Barnum's eureka moment comes when he recruits human curiosities and society's outcasts to generate public interest (or shock audiences). There's a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a cynical dwarf (Sam Humphrey) and African-American trapeze artists, the brother-sister pair of Anne and WD Wheeler (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen).

Despite the reluctance of New York society and a humourless theatre critic (Paul Sparks) to accept his crass "circus" acts, Barnum's show becomes a mainstream hit.

In an effort to gain respectability, he teams up with Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a playwright from the right side of the tracks who serves as Anne's love interest. There are further distractions for Barnum along the way, the most prominent of them being Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a Swedish opera star who threatens to sing her way into his heart, and bankrupt him as well.

The film's pop music sensibility notwithstanding, The Greatest Showman lacks real characters and a convincing narrative, flagging considerably whenever there's a break in musical numbers. Despite Jackman's best efforts, Showman is standard holiday fare: easily consumed and even more easily forgotten.

Rating: C+