After watching The Greatest Showman (2017), I went on YouTube and took in Screen Junkies “Honest Trailer” for the film. You can check it out here, and it is worth doing so. If you watch it before reading the rest of this review, then you might be in for a bit of repetition. Still, I have obligations to fulfill. I have decided to take a new tactic during the week by asking people on social media what they would like me to review. My friend who suggested this film made a good point about how I need to watch all kinds of movies, even ones I despise like musicals. I cannot say this one was any different, but here are my thoughts on it anyway.
I was confused and perturbed almost immediately by The Greatest Showman. I will focus more here on why I was confused, and get into why I was perturbed a little later. You see, I know a little about the life of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), but the historical setting just did not feel right. But if I were to spend this whole review harping on historical inaccuracies, it would be ponderously long. Let us just leave it at P. T. Barnum lived and he had a museum of curiosities that became his famous circus. Much of the rest of this stuff is made up crap, and musical crap at that, but the “crap” part is just my opinion. What director Michael Gracey was going for was a tale about a person, Barnum, who wanted the whole world to like him, but almost lost those most important to him in the process. He starts off in the humblest of origins, though manages to win the affections of the upper-class heiress Charity (Michelle Williams), who has saintly patience as they muddle through poverty. But Barnum promised her more, a glamorous life, which was also to turn out to be a personal vendetta against Charity’s parents. Nice guy. And when the investment company (I suppose, it was not clear to me what Barnum’s first adult job was) goes out of business, Barnum swindles a bank into giving him the money he needs to open his first museum of oddities. So honest. Business does not start booming until he decides to replace his wax attractions with human ones, and in come the likes of Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), otherwise known as the “Bearded Lady,” Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and whole host of other characters that make his attractions into a circus. Now the money starts coming in, but it is seemingly not enough. Barnum longs for acceptance, and increasingly seeks it in the most august circles. This takes him to the court of Queen Victoria, and it is there that he meets the beautifully voiced and figured Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). He brings her to the United States to perform, and in her singing he begins to achieve the kind of renown for which he had long hoped. But it comes at a price. The society he begins to run in makes him to turn his back on the circus attractions he had brought to the public. In going off on tour with Lind, it leads her to become attracted to him. While he does stop short of giving in to those feelings, she feels jilted and kisses him publicly as a way of saying goodbye (I do not know why that makes sense, but it happens). And then when he returns home the circus burns down, his wife leaves him because she finds out about the kiss, and the bank will not give him the money he needs to rebuild. What saves him is the upper-class partner he had brought in early on, Phillip Carlyle, who had invested his earnings wisely and had the capital to rebuild. Once the show is back on, Barnum hands the reins over to Carlyle so that he can go back to his family, who have decided to take him back for some reason. Interspersed throughout all this are a bunch of songs.
Amid the cacophony terrible music and inexplicable character behavior in The Greatest Showman is a shocking ignorance of actual history. As I said before, I will not dwell on this aspect too much. However, one thing stood out to me that I kept waiting to see some reference to throughout the entire film was the Civil War. Barnum’s museum burned down in 1865, which means all the events immediately before it were happening during our nation’s most terrible crisis. Of course, there was the subplot of Carlyle’s feelings for the African American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). So, yes, obviously, racial tensions in the nineteenth century did not make a relationship between the two easy. And yet how do we even know this is set in the nineteenth century? For example, neither Carlyle or Anne even existed. This could be some alternate universe for all we know. I say this mostly because of the music. It has about as much to do with the period as a fish has to do with astro-engineering, and it took me out of any connection to what was going on.
I will admit that my distaste for the music in The Greatest Showman had much to do with my knowledge of history. This extends to my dislike of Barnum as a character. But because so much of this is made up, I can at least appreciate some of the movie from a faith perspective. Going into it, I thought I was going to be making a point about how Barnum offered a place for people that society had shunned, much as the Catholic Church had done for centuries. I could name several examples, but since this is a movie about a circus I will give you St. Joseph of Cupertino. He was not known for his mental abilities, and some have suggested that he might have had learning impairments. But such was his faith that it would levitate him and he was known to fly around the inside of churches. Still, that is not the best way of praising this film, particularly because it is evident that Barnum only wanted to make money off of the people he hired. Instead, it took Barnum nearly losing everything in a Job-like fashion for him to truly understand what is important. Of course, the Bible reminds us that earthly riches cannot bring us happiness. So that this movie drives home this point is one small plus for it.
If you enjoy musicals, then The Great Showman is for you. I do not because I feel like any time they get anywhere with the plot, the flow is interrupted by a song. I sighed almost every time a musical interlude came along. I have never felt like these numbers advance the plot, either. They simply reinforce whatever had been talked about for the past five minutes. Thus if you took at music out, these films would be, what, one hour tops? Then again, I have a tendency to be a stick in the mud, so take such criticisms with a grain of salt.