I really wanted to like this film, I really did. I just couldn’t get there. I have had so many people sing this film’s praises to me, and I love musicals myself, but this film was too problematic in too many ways for me to get any genuine enjoyment out of it.
Basically, The Greatest Showman is unbelievable, but not in a good way. Maybe what really killed the experience for me was already knowing some of the real and troubling parts of P.T. Barnum’s life. From everything I’ve previously read about Barnum, he was not too similar to the altruist this film portrays him as. You are welcome to do your own research on Barnum, I won’t use this post to go into too much detail, but he did some shady things like promoting blackface and minstrel shows, buying and enslaving black performers, frequently lying to the public about many attractions, and committing various human and animal abuses. All he cared about in his career was exploiting “the others” to make himself generous profits. To his credit, later in his life he made charitable contributions and supported causes like the abolition of slavery, but this came after he already profited from a certain level of disregard for human and animal life.
The film opens with an energetic musical number at the circus with ringmaster P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), then fades away to a small boy clearly dreaming about being more than he is now. This boy, a young Barnum (played by Ellis Rubin), is in the family business working as a tailor for a wealthy family. On a house visit, Barnum makes the family’s daughter, Charity (Skylar Dunn), laugh during an etiquette lesson – to the violent disapproval of Charity’s father. The two children later meet on a beach and talk about their future, which leads into a song that glazes over the rest of their childhoods and quickly transforms both of them into adults.
The adult Barnum is trying his best to provide for his wife, the same Charity he befriended as a boy (now played by Michelle Williams), and their two daughters: Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). He is promptly fired from his latest job after finding out the trading company’s ships have all sunk, but has a revelation while playing with his wife and children on the roof of their apartment that night. He applies for a massive loan, and fronts the already sunken trading vessels from his company as collateral.
Barnum uses this loan to buy and transform a museum into a collection of oddities for the public to view, including many wax figures and stuffed animals. After failing to attract any paying customers, Barnum visits a dwarf (played by Sam Humphrey) and asks him to be a live addition to his museum, acting and performing as “General Tom Thumb.” This sparks a hunt for more odd and unique individuals to perform in live acts for him – which eventually becomes a controversial, but sensational idea. People are outraged and horrified, but Barnum makes insane amounts of money with his new show: the “Circus.” He also protects his new museum family as best he can when protestors and violent onlookers begin to assault the “freaks” in his show.
Life is good for the Barnum family, but high society continues to look down on them for how they are earning their money. In an attempt to appeal to the social elite, Barnum convinces well-known socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to become his junior partner and place the show in a more respectable light. Barnum also meets the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and arranges for a massive musical tour across the United States to present her in person to American audiences for the first time. All of this improves his reputation, but puts incredible strain on his marriage, and leaves Carlyle alone at the museum to both run the circus and attempt to keep the growing protests at bay.
When Barnum realizes he must return home, Lind threatens to end the tour early and return to Europe. He leaves anyway, but he arrives to find a huge fire burning down the museum. Although Carlyle is the only person injured, Barnum is still left ruined without any profits coming in from the circus or the Jenny Lind tour. And an incriminating picture of Lind kissing him onstage drives his wife to leave him. However, a quick song at a bar fixes everything, and Barnum is forgiven by all of his performers and his wife. The film ends with the idea to use tents for the circus instead of buy a new building, and we come full circle to the spectacle the film opened with.
The choreography of the film is exceptional; it really feels like an energetic musical true to the stage tradition. The production design, costuming, and makeup have all obviously been crafted and applied with great care and attention to detail. And the wide range of actors and singers do their best to create compelling performances that will hook the audience in. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole just falls flat for me. I keep thinking back through it and trying to evaluate if I’m being too critical, but I just couldn’t enjoy it as much as I can with so many other films and musicals.
The best part of the plot was the controversial romance between Carlyle and the trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) because the individual moments were less rushed than other parts of the story, and it had a little time to develop. It gave Carlyle a bigger reason than money to stay and put all of his energy into the circus, even though Anne kept assuring him that their relationship would never work. After Carlyle runs into the burning museum to save her, she realizes she can’t stand the thought of losing him, and remains by his side during his recovery in the hospital. Their ending feels a bit cliché and fairytale-like, but the actors do well together and it’s easier for me to feel invested in them than any other part of the film. Even though Anne’s brother (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) acts very protective when Carlyle is first meeting Anne, but is fine with the romance for the rest of the film? It’s still less problematic than other major elements of the movie – like the music.
John Debney and Joseph Trapanese are the credited composers for this film. Although, I have to admit, I was so distracted by the songs that I didn’t even listen for underscore! I’m pretty embarrassed that I can’t comment on the score, so I did some research online to see how these two composers may have split the duties with each other and the songwriters, but I couldn’t find much. I’m a huge Debney fan, a bit less familiar with Trapanese’s work, but I would love to get both of them in a room and ask about their contributions to the film. Did they contribute to the production of the songs? How much underscore was there? Did they split cues 50/50, or did they both contribute on each cue? Did one composer specialize in something like synths while the other’s specialty was something like orchestral writing? How much did the songs influence their writing and vice versa? I’ll keep looking for interviews or articles that may answer my questions, but for now, I’ll let you know that my musical impressions all relate to the songs and songwriting.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- The songs are all really long and so repetitive. You’re lucky to get just two verses out of any of these songs, and they all repeat the chorus so, so many times. Which might not even be so bad if the choruses were more interesting, but most are very simple and repetitive to begin with. They extend way longer than they should as an excuse to just montage their way through huge chunks of the story. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have done some amazing work together as songwriters, but for me, this whole show was a miss.
- The pop style just doesn’t work for the subject, the time period, or the voices. The best example I can give for this is the moment when we hear Jenny Lind sing for the first time. She’s meant to be an opera singer, but she sings in the same pop style as the rest of the film. I actually laughed during this moment; it was so ridiculous. In the film, Barnum and Carlyle kept making a big deal about needing a 60-piece orchestra to tour with her. No one needs a 60-piece orchestra to back up a pop track – I think it was weird and wrong to still treat the character as an opera singer, but give her something that sounds more like a song Adele would sing. Also, a personal pet peeve of mine is when a different person is hired to sing for the actor. Loren Allred was the voice of Jenny Lind; why not also make her the face of Jenny Lind? The performance might have been more convincing if they had.
- Only one song actually convinced me that it belonged. “Rewrite the Stars” was the best moment in the film, hands down. The action slowed down long enough for us to enjoy Carlyle and Anne getting this moment together to explore their budding relationship. And I think Zac Efron and Zendaya both had voices better suited to the pop style of the songs than their cast-mates. The dancing throughout the film is incredible, and I love that they work-shopped through the show like a stage musical would be, but either the music should’ve been more “Broadway” or they should have hired more pop singers. But, this is a beautiful moment that’s performed well by both of them and isn’t montaged through like the rest of the film.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- The pacing of the film is too fast and feels wrong. Why do we see a young Barnum and Charity at all? It’s for such a short part of the film, and really doesn’t offer much to the plot. We don’t actually know if the kids are meeting each other for the first time or if they’re already friends, and they get practically no time together before Charity is sent to boarding school. It felt awkward and odd to montage over their childhood with one song rather than spend a little more time developing the characters, or simply toss the childhood scenes all together. The whole film moves too fast; there’s hardly any struggle to get customers before Barnum “desperately” finds live acts for his show, and their trip to England to meet Queen Victoria happens immediately after Carlyle hops on board. Barnum jumps on the Jenny Lind train super fast, and jumps off just as quickly. There’s too much material for this film when it’s only an hour and a half, especially when repetitive songs take up a significant amount of expository time.
- Too much of Barnum’s actions are forgiven and glossed over, if they’re addressed at all. We get a hint at how Barnum really was when he starts to ignore his performers to fawn over Lind and try to wiggle his way into high society, but all the transgressions are quickly and easily forgiven after the museum burns down. The same happens with his wife – a picture plastered across the front pages of every newspaper of Barnum and Lind kissing on tour only merits a short trip to her parents’ house and a conversation on the beach. And the worst part is, no sort of indecent relationship happened between Barnum and Lind in real life. He did plenty of morally questionable and morally wrong things in reality, but this brief affair was entirely made up. Probably because it makes for an easier film to watch than addressing how he actually purchased an old African-American woman and forced her to drink so he could pull out all her teeth to attempt and make her appear even older for an act. Or how General Tom Thumb was only 4 or 5 years old when he began working for Barnum, and was both drinking and smoking cigars by age 7 to “delight” their paying audiences.
- Good casting, good production design, and excellent choreography helped the film, but couldn’t save it. The people in the film are clearly talented, and the big production numbers have a lot of fun details added to them. There are so many costumes and props, as well as a lot of work for the hair and makeup department, so I would never want to say that it was a “bad movie.” It’s obvious that a lot of people put a lot of hard work into this film – all you have to do is watch one of the songs with a big chorus dance moment in it to notice that. But because my issues with the film come from a story and songwriting standpoint, no amount of hard work on the structure could fix what appears to be a weak foundation.
Overall, I think some amazing people were cast in a musical that didn’t play to the strength of their voices, and was too ambitious in the scope of the story they tried to present. The dancing and production design was stunning, but there’s not much else I can positively say about the film. Too many moments went by too quickly, too many songs ran too long, and too many unforgivable things about Barnum were ignored for the sake of trying to present something enjoyable to watch.
The Greatest Showman would’ve benefited greatly either from being a movie that gave a more accurate overview of P.T. Barnum’s life, or from being a musical that focused in on a smaller chunk of his career. I think it was ultimately a mistake to try and do both.