Movie Review: The Greatest Showman is Far from Great

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman is Far from Great
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About the Author

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is a thespian and performer who has worked with theatre, film, and TV across Ontario. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville nearly 20 years. Currently, he studies Journalism at Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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Fox’s new blockbuster movie musical is the holiday season’s biggest letdown. A great premise and cast are squandered – left with an atrocious script that undermines the integrity of the true P. T. Barnum story. The misleading title The Greatest Showman doesn’t deliver its promise – the greatest disappointment would be more accurate.

The tone of director Michael Gracey expensive extravaganza is the main problem. The characters and writing are frequently mean and pandering, so nothing they do feels impressive. It’s insultingly inappropriate.

Gracey’s original musical (a rare thing in cinemas today) tells a fictionalized version of showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he invents the modern circus. His new kind of live show faces a series of challenges, and he, his family and company face a series of trials against protestors, banks, and even themselves.

Photo: 20th Century Fox.

P. T. Barnum, the inventor and pioneer of live entertainment 100 years ago, actually has a fascinating story to tell. But this misguided style is ineffective. At its worst, it feels like a fusion of a tween pop concert and a big-screen soap opera.

The same story might have worked better as a straightforward biography following his story in more detail. Or for a story this barren, perhaps live theatre could have won audiences by showing the spectacle in person.

The music is the biggest misfire

Terrible as Gracey’s concept is on screen, the most surprising failure is the atrocious new songs from recent Oscar and Tony Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They’ve had two monster hits in the last year, in film from La La Land and on stage from Dear Evan Hansen. Showman feels wildly distant from both of these works.

Pasek and Paul abandon all their signature charm and courageous themes they show in their stage musicals. They range from forgettable to screechingly-false and vomit inducing. The lyrics are as layered and interesting as paint thinner.

One example comes from a corny duet between Barnum and new friend Carlyle (Zac Efron) convincing him to join the business. The jagged rhymes and wording forcefully place the song among today’s most desperate pop music.

“Okay my friend, you want to cut me in?
Well I hate to tell you, but it just won’t happen.”

Using pop music is so clearly out of place and radically unsuitable to this material. We should be celebrating the grandeur of classic music of America’s 1910s. Instead the modern sound ruins the historical backdrop. There’s no social commentary by mixing the time of setting and sound – it’s a transparent cash grab. And a colossal misfire.

Photo: 20th Century Fox.

The movie, however, is not without some commendable parts. That backdrop I mentioned really is quite dazzling. The production, set, and costume design are all quite pleasing, even though there aren’t any visual surprises after the first half hour.

And the cast is certainly working hard to make the weak screenplay digestible. Jackman is a great leading player as Barnum, though it’s Keala Settle as the bearded woman who steals the show. Her ferocious acting and emotionally rich singing actually salvage and lift the only two enjoyable songs in the film – “This Is Me” and “From Now On.”

It’s too mean to be spectacular

Some treatment of the characters (both the refined higher class and the unique performers) is downright cruel. But their depiction doesn’t expose any unjust behavior, either. Instead of the supporting cast appearing brave or joyous, most of the time they appear angry and depressed.

The awkward mash of modern pop music and dance is detrimental to the film’s enjoyability. But everything considered, the sluggish two hours feel inauthentic. Celebrating our differences and what makes us special is a great moral. But it’s never explored – or even shown in a constructive or compassionate light.

While unremarkable, the film certainly will be a crowd-pleasing by festering musical addicts and teenagers with low expectations. I’ll admit there are a few short scenes that are almost fun before the tone returns to being dark and cumbersome.

If you’re looking for the next La La Land, like the advertising suggests it is, don’t expect much. This is the polar opposite. I adore lush, grand movie musicals that are made to bring smiles to audiences’ faces. But there’s nothing great about this show.

The Greatest Showman
1 1/2 out of 4 stars

PG, 1hr 55mins. Musical Romance History Drama.
Directed by Michael Gracey.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle and Rebecca Ferguson.
Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, Cineplex Winston Churchill and Cineplex Oakville & VIP.

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