I’ve always loved the phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” particularly when it comes to film. Like any view on movies it’s an entirely subjective opinion, but it’s a phrase I’ve been known to use. I appreciate the fact that it so easily communicates a quality that can be unique to film, that sometimes a movie rises above the potentially mediocre pieces from which it is assembled to become something more. We all have movies that feel this way to us, that have poor acting, an uninspired story, or other faults, yet still manages to capture our hearts. However, there is of course another side to this coin. Some movies have wonderful individual moments, whether great acting, an engaging story, or beautiful production design, yet they leave you feeling disappointed, as though they’re wasting the enjoyable bits. So despite loving much of The Greatest Showman, including its performances, many of its musical numbers, and its message, I was left feeling like it was less than the sum of its parts.
The Greatest Showman tells a story of P.T. Barnum, the poor son of a tailor who falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The two grow up and eventually marry, with Barnum working as a lowly accountant while he and his wife raise their two little girls in a relatively poor (he is unable to provide the ballet slippers and lessons the eldest wishes for) but happy life. But Barnum has larger dreams and a need to prove himself, and when he is fired from his job he manages to cheat his way into a loan in order to buy a museum in Manhattan. The museum limps along, barely selling any tickets, until Barnum is struck by an inspiration to inject some life into his business and begins to seek out and hire “freaks” to attract interest. He assembles a troop of “curiosities”, including a dwarf, a giant, Siamese twins, a “750-lb man”, a bearded lady, trapeze acts, etc., and the crowds begin to roll in as Barnum’s flair for showmanship asserts itself. Barnum becomes wealthy and (in)famous, and as critics trash his museum and protesters gather outside its gates Barnum’s ambition continues to grow. Having a mansion and providing for his family isn’t enough, but when he makes strides towards legitimizing himself with the upper class he risks the wonderful life he’s built for himself and puts both his real family and the family of “freaks” he’s created in harm’s way.
I say that The Greatest Showman tells “a” story of P.T. Barnum because the movie bears little resemblance to the life of the man who built the most famous circus in the world. True, Barnum was married, owned a museum in New York that eventually burned down, drafted “freaks” of all sorts into his enterprise, and toured with a Swedish opera singer in order to improve his reputation. He was also a slave owner, he exploited both his employees and countless animals he owned both in life and after their deaths, and he capitalized and encouraged some of the worst instincts in audiences. He also brought joy and entertainment to a lot of people, and built a successful empire in the process. P.T. Barnum was both a brilliant entertainment innovator and a product of his time, and a nuanced biopic of his life could be fascinating to watch onscreen. The Greatest Showman, however, is not that film, and it honestly has no interest in being it.
There’s a debate to be had over whether movies have a responsibility to portray real life people accurately, but I’m not going to dive into that here. I will say that I don’t recall seeing The Greatest Showman advertising itself as a true story, and the whole film has the atmosphere of a movie “inspired by” a real life person. I also believe audiences have a responsibility to educate themselves on a subject before assuming that what they saw onscreen is in any way true to life. But more than the ethics of biographical filmmaking is the issue of whether The Greatest Showman makes the most of its genuinely interesting subject. The answer is not as firm a yes as I would have liked. I can appreciate the fact that they took a questionable figure from history and used him to tell an uplifting story about the value of family and the need to treat everyone with respect and dignity and worth regardless of the ways in which society might spurn them. But the story that is told is too predictable and more than a little flat. Barnum isn’t given much depth beyond being driven to prove himself and being adept at selling his brand of entertainment to the crowds. Other characters get better arcs, but the man at the center of the ring is never as compelling a character as I would have liked.
On the other hand, there are many things I loved about The Greatest Showman, almost in spite of its storytelling faults. The musical numbers are almost uniformly excellent, and are comprised of a higher ratio of show-stoppers than you’d expect from a typical musical. The songs are definitely more tailored to be “breakaway pop hits,” the sort of songs you’d expect to hear Katy Perry or Taylor Swift singing on the radio, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as the empowering message of the songs and the musical as a whole fits nicely into that sort of style. They’re beautifully staged with great choreography and a winning cast to perform them. Hugh Jackman is perfectly cast as the film’s version of Barnum, and he’s more than proven his musical chops over his career. He’s always compelling to watch onscreen, particularly when he’s paired with others. Michelle Williams is fine as Barnum’s wife Charity, though her role like many others could have used more development. Keala Settle steals the show as the circus’s Bearded Lady with what is perhaps the anthem of the musical, “This is Me,” a rousing song of defiance at those who laugh and jeer at the “freaks.” But perhaps the best performances come from Zac Efron and Zendaya. Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, a struggling but upstanding playwright who Barnum brings on as a partner in the hopes of attracting a more high-class clientele, while Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. The pair not only have the most interesting characters, as they fall in love despite their different races and backgrounds and must fight society’s prejudices, but the actors also elevate the material at every turn. Efron has shown himself to be a great showman in his own right, between the High School Musical films and Hairspray, but he’s taken things to another level here. He has a maturity and gravity that he brings to the role that I would love to see more of in the future, especially in a musical setting, and it’s a welcome change from the sorts of comedies he’s starred in lately. (He may have a gift for those kinds of movies but I wouldn’t know, as they’re just not my sort of thing.) Zendaya is more than a match for him, however, and brings fire and fierceness to the circus along with a vulnerability that gives her character depth. Together they’re perfectly matched and they made me wish the movie had been centered on their characters with Barnum in a supporting role. The romantic number they sing together as Zendaya acrobatically flies around the circus was one of the film’s biggest highlights.
One thing I found particularly endearing about The Greatest Showman was that you could really feel how dedicated the cast was to the film they were making. Hugh Jackman has been trying to get this movie made for eight years, and you can feel his passion for it every time he’s onscreen. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, who particularly throw themselves into the songs and the choreography with a level of enthusiasm that is infectious. Contrast that with La La Land (which shares its songwriting duo, Pasek and Paul, with The Greatest Showman), which never felt fully committed to its musical side. The Greatest Showman may have its faults, particularly when it comes to the story that writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and director Michael Gracey are trying to tell, but the movie always has its heart cranked up as high as it can go. The lack of layers and nuance may make the film ultimately a bit disappointing when it’s so clear that it could have been much more, but at any given moment it has the ability to dazzle, to tug at the heartstrings, or to cause smiles to break out. Throughout the movie Barnum insists that while much of what he’s putting on for audiences is fake, the smiles are real. The Greatest Showman may be as hollow as a trip to the circus, its message may be overly simple for our complex times, its uplifting spirit may only be able to carry it so far, and it may in fact be hokum (the old-timey for bullshit it uses frequently), but it made me smile again and again. I may wish it was better, and think that it doesn’t live up to the great moments it contains, but I wish there were more movies like it. Big-screen musicals are an endangered breed and are one of my favorite forms of entertainment, and I can only hope that there are more showmen and show-women out there willing to bring us more movies like this.