Films like The Greatest Showman just aren’t made anymore. A big-budget Hollywood musical straight out of the golden age, it is, of course, an enjoyably cheesy time but can’t help feeling out of place in today’s cinema. With a modern, more cynical audience and a lack of self-awareness, The Greatest Showman just seems more fitted to the stage than the screen.
Loosely based on the true story of P. T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman follows him from poor child to circus ringmaster as he becomes the forerunner of modern show business. Featuring a multitude of catchy musical numbers that will keep you humming for days, the film works best when it embraces the cringe and goes all out on the more extravagant song and dance numbers yet this also holds it back in terms of plot and character; the truth behind the story is very interesting and layered but the medium of the musical forces complex situations and individuals into simple black and white much like Barnum’s freak show itself. While the film opens with a bang, it takes a while to settle into a comfortable rhythm yet eventually grows into itself with the rapid development of Barnum’s circus business and new characters being introduced and explored.
The ensemble cast adds some power to the song and dance set pieces yet they can often seem un-cinematic in their execution with visuals that would seem impressive on stage but fall flat on the screen. Despite a few more exciting numbers standing out, a majority of the film just blends together with a repeated obvious message about acceptance that is heart-warming but simplified again for the musical format. Though the music itself helps keep you invested and entertained to an extent, it is only surface level glitz and glamour; never enough to keep The Greatest Showman out of mediocrity. While it is definitely Barnum’s story and a clear star vehicle for the musically talented Hugh Jackman, the more interesting moments come from the supporting cast including a showstopper by Rebecca Ferguson and the always charismatic Zac Efron as Barnum’s protégé.
The Greatest Showman is that rare musical which seems un-ironically sincere, stuffed full of clichés and dripping with rose-tinted gloss. While this dials up the cringe factor, it’s at least an entertaining slice of escapism that much like the circus will keep you distracted with pretty things for two hours.