The Greatest Showman Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron. Directed by Michael Gracey. Rated PG. Now playing citywide.
As eager to please as a trained puppy and as sugary and insubstantial as cotton candy, the old-fashioned musical The Greatest Showman turns the life of circus pioneer P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza that bears essentially no resemblance to reality. Recasting Barnum as a champion of the oppressed, Showman places him in the middle of a cloyingly inspirational story about following your dreams (the word “dream” is uttered dozens of times), with bombastic, overproduced songs that sound more like modern pop than Broadway standards.
The movie starts with Barnum as a downtrodden Dickensian child, in love with the rich daughter of the family that employs his father. After a quick musical number, Barnum and Charity (Michelle Williams) are married with two children, struggling to make ends meet in 1830s New York City. Barnum takes a chance on opening a museum of curiosities, and soon he has the hottest ticket in town with a show that puts freaks and misfits center stage. He faces backlash from upper-class snobs and lets success go to his head, but in the end everything works out for the best.
Writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who has worked on some of the most successful screen musicals of the past 15 years) leave out most of Barnum’s professional and personal life for the sake of streamlining the story into something easily digestible, and they make lots of time for a subplot about Barnum’s business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and his forbidden interracial romance with acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). While Efron and Zendaya’s duet “Rewrite the Stars” is probably the movie’s musical highlight, the characters’ storyline is even duller and more simplistic than Barnum’s. Williams mostly stands around and looks disapproving in her role as the long-suffering wife, and Rebecca Ferguson is underused as a Swedish singing sensation who captures Barnum’s professional and personal attention.
The songs by veteran songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) are somewhat catchy but almost entirely personality-free, full of lyrical platitudes about believing in yourself and never giving up. Unlike a lot of modern movie musicals, Showman has a cast full of actual singers, and the stars without strong voices (including Ferguson) have their singing dubbed by professionals. First-time director Michael Gracey has a background in visual effects, and he stages most of the production numbers like frenetic music videos, which is sometimes inventive but just as often too chaotic. The broad performances, simplistic emotions and slick songs might eventually win audiences over, but only because they’re too worn out to resist.