PG for a criminal rewrite of history. Okay, I guess my kids could have seen this one. I didn't actually realize it was PG while I watched it, but I suppose that there's nothing all that bad. Oh wait, P.T. Barnum exploited people for their physical malformation and the movie presented him as if he was doing something extremely noble. That's right. I don't want my kids watching this movie. But I guess it is PG. And my parental guidance says that they shouldn't believe this movie.
DIRECTOR: Michael Gracey
My in-laws might get mad at me for writing this. I think everyone in my wife's family absolutely loved this movie. But then everyone at school hated this movie. I was just happy to get a chance to finally see it. It was one of the handful of Academy Award nominees that I didn't really get an opportunity to see when it was in theaters. Honestly, I kind of kept putting it on the back burner because people told me it wasn't that great. My feelings about this movie are kind of in the middle, which might be the worst thing. If I loved it, I could be the guy who loved the movie that a lot of people I know hated and I would be in good graces with my in-laws. If I hated it, I would at least have a really strong opinion and I could argue until I'm blue in the face about why the film musical as a genre is dying. But I didn't like it nor did I hate it. So that's going to taint this review of the movie pretty clearly.
As a musical, I suppose it did its job. It has so many things in the right place. While my in-laws didn't care for the Les Miserables adaptation (I know!), I loved it. Hugh Jackman is a really smart casting decision for the role of P.T. Barnum in this movie. If you are going to rewrite history to make Barnum out to be this forward progressive, there probably isn't a bigger pick than Hugh Jackman. He's handsome, charismatic, and has a set of pipes to really spearhead this movie. Then there is pretty boy Zac Efron, who both uses his Disney chops but pushes them beyond cutesy in this one to give him a little cred. Zendaya has been on my list of solid actresses since Spider-Man: Homecoming, and she really rocks the part out pretty well. Also, the movie is extremely pretty to look at. The aesthetics of the movie are awesome and the dance numbers are darned impressive. So from what I just said right there, why didn't I love it? Okay, I'm going to harp the history of this one. Barnum, from everything I've studied, was probably a horrible human being. I had the same problem with A Beautiful Mind (ANOTHER AUSSIE PLAYING A YANK!) The guy was one of the most famous hucksters in the world. He exploited people for money and that was his gimmick. The movie almost makes the hard call and discusses that, but then shies away from and it and goes the total opposite way from this idea. It shouts loud from the rooftops --in song, no less -that P.T. Barnum was a champion of the oppressed and that's not true. It's kind of icky to make a movie about it, frankly. But then let's go deeper into the movie as a whole. I talked about how Jackman's got a set of pipes on him. I don't think a lot of this movie is Jackman's fault. He does a fine job and I love him for it. But the music in this one is pretty polarizing. I don't want to be the old man who preaches about how the music should be like the musicals of yesteryear. I am ashamed to say it, but I once loved Moulin Rouge!. Don't stick with that too long. I think I've changed my mind on that one. But the genre of music in this one did absolutely nothing for me. I know. It was by the lyricist of my beloved La La Land. I should be all about this movie, but the music was annoying. I know that there have been a lot of people playing this and it's just not for me. While that doesn't make the movie objectively bad, it does definitely turn me off to the whole thing.
I also don't really get Zac Efron. I'm sorry. I get him in some things, but I'm now realizing I haven't seen a lot of the movies that people like him in. Note to self: Watch Neighbors. Efron and Jackman both are doing their jobs. But there's a big number that involves the both of them. As a number, it is one of the better songs in the movie. The dancing is spectacular, but I also never believe the scene emotionally. I can't unsee Old Man Logan dancing with Troy from High School Musical. That's a real problem for me. Then there is the secondary story with Efron and Zendaya. There is some real meat here that could be explored. The problem is that it is one of the most obvious B-storylines that I've seen in a movie. The Greatest Showman never really tackles any racial issue that hasn't been discussed before with greater detail. Rather, it unfortunately just serves as padding for Jackman's kind of boring A-story. I will give the A-story some credit. In terms of what it does for Barnum's fictional character development, it is pretty solid. I like the idea that there is this guy who is so good at what he does, but is never really taken seriously because he's not classy enough. That's actually pretty good and I rode that story until the movie ended. But then there's this weird relationship that was nothing like the real thing. Then there were the psychopathic rabble rousers. The movie doesn't really offer a ton of nuance when it comes to the people who wanted Barnum drawn and quartered. They were the Frankenstein mob. Again, my complaint is that this movie paints with broad strokes. It hits every beat, but treats these beats like checkmarks. The movie needed X, Y, and Z so it was going to give the movie X, Y, and Z. But I would rather simply have one or two of these moments explored in detail. I have to officially classify The Greatest Showman as a biopic, begrudgingly. But I wish that Showman looked at Steve Jobs as a template for how to make a movie compelling. I would rather just focus on one story from Barnum's life than trying to cover his family, his career, his business dealings, and his "humanitarian efforts." But I suppose by saying that, I have to be missing the point.
The movie stresses that Barnum threw everything that he could at the audience and left them wanting more. By me saying, I want less and in more detail, I guess that's not the Barnum way. The movie really doesn't hold anything back, and that's sometimes at the expense of the film. There are all of these cool dance numbers that mirror circus acts. Unfortunately, there's something truly uncanny valley about these numbers. We'll never get a Broadway show on the level as the film (thank God, for multiple reasons) because so much of the movie was digital. I guess that might be the hucksteriest thing about the movie. It presents all these things as real that were really just over-the-top illusions. I'm sure that there was a memo or a banner when making this movie. I'm sure that they wanted to present the Greatest Show on Earth the entire time. Money was going to be no object because they wanted to recreate Barnum's sense of spectacle. But spectacle gets criminally tiring. There's a reason that circus died. (Okay, it was because of a history of cruelty to animals, but also...spectacle.) The movie really tries to make us forget the reason we stopped going to the circus and wants to leave us simply with the awe. But CG doesn't awe us anymore. There is a way to make spectacle work and we just don't do it anymore. Busby Berkeley did it with real people. The second that it doesn't become real, we stop being afraid. Perhaps The Greatest Showman is actually a cautionary tale about making things fake. The real is scary. Why do I need to pad the fat man's suit?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.