Who says that favorites need to be old ones? The theme is still an introduction to who I am through the things I enjoy. Who know if this movie will make it into the list of everlasting favorites but as of now I am still as obsessed with it as I was the first time I saw it. I definitely have a thing for musicals and this one has a lot more things I love in it as well, as you will hear. The Greatest Showman is by no means an insider’s tip but a mainstream favorite, with an Oscar nomination and a few musical awards under its belt. I myself am still regularly listening to the soundtrack and the more recent album where pop singers reimagined the soundtrack.
Since this review will definitely get out of hand lengthwise, here are my main take-aways in bullet points:
- The film has a whimsical vintage circus aesthetic and the most beautiful soundtrack
- The main story is one of misguided motivation to succeed but there are powerful subplots of acceptance and love throughout the movie
- Hugh Jackman embodies The Greatest Showman perfectly
- Stop it with the age gaps and bad CGI elephants!
Now let’s get this show on the road. The movie is loosely based on the life of P.T.Barnum, the creator of the world’s first modern circus. Barnum is played by Hugh Jackman who doesn’t need introducing I hope. Michelle Williams portrays his wife Charity and his second in command is no other than Zac Efron. His troupe’s biggest name is Zendaya (Coleman – if you really need a last name) but the real star of the troupe is Keala Settle whose songs steal the show.
The story follows P.T. Barnum who grew up impoverished and in love with a well-off girl from his neighborhood – his future wife Charity. It kicks off after his modestly paying job as a clerk is suddenly terminated and he is in need of a new source of income. He is a master sales man, story teller and entertainer and uses this forced opportunity for change to open his freak show – a museum of oddities. After a few false starts with taxidermy giraffes and the like, the finds his forte in bringing oddities of the human kind together. He builds a show around “freaks” like a bearded lady, a giant man, someone covered in tattoos, a duo of African American aerialists and the like.
The show is an immediate success with the masses but Barnum wants more. His aspirations are beyond being just any entertainer – he wants to be the greatest showman. He especially seeks the acceptance of the upper class who look down at his rowdy circus show as being uncultured and beneath them. He becomes obsessed with proving his worth to them and proceeds to risk it all to make it happen.
P.T. Barnum isn’t the most loveable of characters for most of the movie but his vision and drive stem from a place of love and a fear of failure – he projects his need to provide for his family onto the much grander scale of world-wide success. Hugh Jackman plays this charismatic and larger than life character perfectly. I especially enjoyed seeing him dance and sing so vivaciously after his contrasting old-man-Wolverine performance in Logan. Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity shows a heartfelt love, loyalty and quiet courage throughout the movie but I just couldn’t get over the very apparent age difference of the actors. It would not have mattered as much hadn’t it been established that they were supposed to be childhood friends of the exact same age.
The secondary plot of Zac Efron’s trust fund baby character Philipp Carlyle was one of my favorite things about the movie. He joins the troupe as second in command after a remarkable duet negotiating the terms – Wolverine and Troy Bolton singing together is what dreams are made of. Set off by falling in love with aerialist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), his character shows great personal development throughout the story. Their love story is overshadowed by the ugly reality of racism and Zendaya plays the defiant and proud performer gracefully and delicately. I also need to address her stage outfit quickly because the pink bodysuit and matching hair are a thing of beauty.
The theme of acceptance in The Greatest Showman extends way past the Zac/Zendaya love story as it is at the very core of the troupe. The show is a safe haven and surrogate family for all its “freaks” that have been shunned by society all their lives. This culminates in Keala Settles powerful performance of the Oscar nominated song This Is Me which puts the topic at the center of the troupe’s performances.
In general, the songs written for the movie are all exceptionally beautiful, very divers in theme and sound, and also further the plot. This last point is something I always appreciate in musicals because it makes the music a relevant plot device. The soundtrack is overall very positive and catchy and now on my list of guaranteed mood-boosters.
The aesthetics of the film are also worth mentioning as they beautifully draw on the classic vintage circus vibe. The film is sparkling, whimsical and colorful with a few dark edges in contrast and the showy red/blue/gold colors of the classical circus are interspersed by the light pink of Zendaya’s hair and the white of the little girls’ dresses to make it a perfect fairytale. I do have to draw the lines at the elephants though – they were impressively done up but also very apparently CGI. Elephants are big but so is Hugh Jackman and I think scale just got out of hand – as did the storytelling. Go big or go home is one thing but riding through a snow storm in New York on an elephant and just parking it alone in front of a theater is another.
All in all, this movie was an instant favorite for me because of the cast, the acceptance theme, the soundtrack and the whole vintage circus aesthetic. It’s definitely a whimsical feel-good film that any dreamer can enjoy. I also tend to enjoy anything that Hugh Jackman is part of so there is that.
The movie is out on BluRay and DVD – I think it won’t be long until it’s out on a streaming service as well. Watch the trailer here.