Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. Your feelings matter but they likely will not change my opinion. Furthermore, I paid $20 to watch this film. I felt I needed to share my experience with others who are considering parting with their dollars.
I am reluctant to view films that are surrounded by hype, however, a friend of mine selected it so I went along because we both like musicals.
I didn’t listen to the soundtrack or watch any YouTube promos before experiencing the film. I wanted to see it and enjoy it firsthand.
Hugh Jackman as a leading man and the aesthetic of the posters reminded me of his character in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film The Prestige. I shouldn’t have set that benchmark in my mind. The Prestige had a well-thought out plot with an amazing twist, and was consistent in its Victorian presentation. However, this film left me feeling differently, and rightly so; they are different films.
What I will admit from the outset is that the film made me feel things. I generally go on a journey with the characters and, if they are relatable enough, I will be moved by their plight and rejoice in their triumphs. That said, the narrative felt thinly-written throughout, and particularly towards the end in spite of a central character who made something of himself despite his humble beginnings. The central premise was relatable, but the struggle was not real.
The onscreen chemistry between Phineas (Jackman) and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) was excellent, but the film suffered under the weight of Hollywood box office clichés, and director Michael Gracey seemed hell-bent on lining it up for a predictable happy ending.
He didn’t allow any of the characters to grapple with their sorrow or misfortune long enough before throwing themselves into a song-and-dance routine. On that note, I thought the choreography was wonderful. I particularly loved the aerial scene with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).
I won’t list the tragedies the characters were dealt out of courtesy to those who haven’t watched the film, but enduring some of these trials for longer would have given the film more gravitas. Gracey brushed past them too quickly for my liking. P.T Barnum’s success and rise to fame felt romanticised and this disconnected me somewhat. The segues between dialogue and songs felt contrived and borderline hammy.
I liked the character of the theatre critic, James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) and what he said to P. T. Barnum, which I will attempt to paraphrase: “I wouldn’t call what you do art, but the way you place those people of different shapes and sizes on stage with you and count them as equals, one critic might say that is a celebration of humanity.”
I empathised with Phineas Taylor Barnum’s hardships and I wanted him to get the girl, realise his crazy visions, give society’s superficial expectations the finger, and overcome his adversities, and with so many opportunities Gracey had to drive emotion deeper than the fantasmagorical, he played it safe and made sure all the characters got what they wanted in the end. This results in trite interrelationships when the film had the chance to celebrate humanity in all its shapes, sizes, and struggles.
Add to that a pop score that caters to the tweens. If you’re expecting a score that compliments the lovely Hugo-esque cinematography and lavish costumes… don’t. The music attempts to elicit joy through its anthems of self-acceptance and unity despite being an outcast. Though the themes are admirable, the music never really caters to them beyond lip service, and ultimately falls flat in its execution (that’s probably where the autotune comes in).
My metric for a good soundtrack is whether I leave humming or singing one of the tunes. I know a little bit about music and my ear picks up melodies pretty quickly. I am currently struggling to remember a single hook from that pop score that I heard only 4 hours ago. Hmmm… no I can’t remember any of it. I do remember a bearded lady though.
It is probably going to win its awards given its A-list cast, and that is okay because the awards are in part based on the popularity of a film. It has a number 1 soundtrack on iTunes and enjoyed box office success in the US, Australia, and UK. I’m not going to get upset if it wins awards because the arbiters of award ceremonies can give awards to whomever they feel like. This doesn’t alter my opinion or experience of this film.
All in all, the highlights were special effects, costume and set design, Ashley Allen’s choreography, and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. McGarvey (also known for Atonement) transported me into another time and place and fired up my imagination. Arguably Jackman is The Greatest Showman as one of Australia’s best triple threat exports, however, The Greatest Showman is not the greatest film. It is worth watching for its escapism, and Hugh Jackman looks great dressed as a ring leader. However, this is not up there on my list of favourite movie musicals or soundtracks.