“The Greatest Showman” tells the story of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dad married to his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), who embarks on a plan to create a circus sensation with the help of his partner, Philip Carlyle (Zac Effron). They enlist the help of various performers such as Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a trapeze artist, and Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded woman singer, in their struggle for legitimacy.
The film harkens back to the days of the grand old musical, full of sparkle, glitz and glam. There’s extravagant costumes and bright colors and kinetic energy. And underneath it all is practically nothing, a hollow shell of a story.
The music is great (just try to get “The Greatest Show” or “This Is Me” out of your head afterwards), and the film is visually well-made. It’s fun to watch, but ultimately fruitless without that essential beat of a story. No character really goes through personal trauma that tests them. There’s no buildup or plot twists. Everything glides over the surface and you forget the film (though not the music) as soon as the story is over.
This is not to say that the film’s morals are wrong, just its story. The story has themes of fitting in despite being different, never forgetting where you come from and accepting love wherever it may lie. It’s old Hollywood schmaltz at its finest. The plot structure however keeps these themes from being relevant parts of the story, and it’s only the soundtrack that makes them somewhat overt.
For those who have seen the film, imagine the following scenario instead:
Unloved outcast P.T. Barnum feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere. He imagines all sorts of fantastical people who he befriends to help him get through the hard times.
He meets a woman whom he tells his stories to and sweeps her off her feet. He finds love and starts a family.
As the Great Depression wreaks havoc on families everywhere, Barnum, overcome with a desire to bring some happiness to others, decides to tell the stories of his youth to his daughters. Seeing their adoration of such fantastical tales, the daughters wish such things were real. Barnum knows that in fact they are. He decides to create the same experience for families all over the country, using love of family to spur his actions.
It’s a long, hard struggle to raise the funds. He travels the country to find people who match his vision, having to convince his performers to take the leap and expose their outer selves on stage. This results in a grand first performance (after much jitters) at the midpoint of the film.
The second half of the film then focuses on how success changes the relationship of Barnum to those he has befriended. Is he exploiting his friends for personal gain? Does he lose sight of why he undertook the endeavor? The relationships between his performers are also put to the test as romances begin and wane and friendships are tested by prominence and ego. They resolve these issues as they put on their biggest show yet at the film’s conclusion.
There are hints of this plot throughout the film, but glam overtakes substance throughout the narrative. The circus is put together far too quickly, and we never really get to know the characters. The fun should have come from seeing all the different performers interact, learn their backgrounds and how they are similar to us, and how they overcome their professional and personal demons. Instead, we don’t really have much of anything to latch onto.
Some will find issue with the abuse of facts about Barnum’s life, glorifying a man who was far from a saint, but it is evident that the filmmakers were going for schmaltz and offering plenty of winks to the audience about the old-time musical. The approach is fine. The execution is lacking.