Kernel Rating (out of 5): (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This musical acts somewhat like a biopic of P.T. Barnum, portraying the man who helped popularize the spectacle of the “freak show” and circus in a very positive light; how much you know about what Barnum actually was like will color your impression of the film. Upper-class and wealthy people are depicted as child abusers (you see one slap a young boy in the face) dream crushers, and judgmental jerks; there are scenes of protestors and riots where the “freaks” of Barnum’s show are attacked physically; a gigantic fire lands a character in the hospital with burns and wounds; and some implied romantic tension between a couple of characters, including a few kisses.
P.T. Barnum was not a good person, and it is fundamentally disingenuous for ‘The Greatest Showman’ to portray the man as a generous provider of opportunity and spinner of dreams. If you treat the film entirely as fiction, it’s an earnest, enjoyable musical, but removing it from problematic source material is a challenge.
By Roxana Hadadi
“The Greatest Showman” should have been a stage musical, not a cinematic one. It’s a glittery, lively film that may please families with its zeal and catchy songs, but if you are aware of any of the true details of P.T. Barnum’s story, it’s representation of him as a beneficial champion of the misfortunate is nearly impossible to accept.
Star Hugh Jackman (of “Eddie the Eagle”) has done tons of well-respected theater work and has a Tony Award, and the songs for the film are mostly invigorating, and the colorful, sparkly production design would look beautiful onstage. And maybe the whole thing shouldn’t have been about Barnum, a con man who took advantage of those who looked like “freaks” and made money off of them, and who literally owned a slave whom he used to exhibit as a “national curiosity.”
This story—of a person who imagined a more magical life, and who worked ambitiously and zealously to make that happen for himself and his family—is one that aligns with the wish-fulfillment aspect of the holiday season. But the movie could have been entirely fictional, and shouldn’t have been about this man, who is irritatingly portrayed as practically flawless. Everyone in “The Greatest Showman” loves Barnum: his wife Charity (Michelle Williams, of “Oz the Great and Powerful”), who leaves behind wealth and privilege for him; the “freaks” he employs, including “bearded lady” Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle, of “Ricki and the Flash”), who have an entire song about how great he is and how much he’s given them a “family,” even though his negligence led to them being attacked and nearly killed; and an exceptionally talented opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), who travels across the world to tour with him.
Everybody loves this guy except rich people, and even then, Barnum gets his victory when he ends up rich, too, and can shove his wealth in their faces. That’s not a spoiler, that’s what happened in real life; Barnum became exorbitantly wealthy and synonymous with a kind of zany wonder that the people who were commoditized in his shows clearly did not share. And that’s not Barnum exhibiting unity with the dispossessed; that’s the worst kind of capitalism, presented to us as holiday sing-along cheer.
“The Greatest Showman” follows Barnum from his childhood as the son of a poor tailor to his adulthood as a self-made man, where he lies, tricks, and cheats people into handing over their money to him. “This isn’t the life I promised you,” he tells Charity and their two daughters, so he decides to go all-in on a gamble: that people will want to see amazing, unnatural, odd things, and that they’ll pay to do it. So he purchases a “museum of curiosities” and recruits “freaks” to be featured in an accompanying show—a woman with facial hair, conjoined twins, a man who looks like a dog, a really tall man, a really fat man—and they sing and dance and delight some people while angering others. And through it all, Barnum keeps chasing a dream of spectacle, telling the people he’s featured in his show that they are unique and one-of-a-kind and worthy of adoration—or at least, that’s what the movie wants us to think about Barnum. Whether you’ll actually perceive the film that way connects, again, to whether you think Barnum was concerned more with the people in his show or the affluence he was accumulating.
From a musical point of view, though, a lot of this is fun. The songs are great, especially the Settle-led number “This Is Me” and the Zac Efron/Zendaya duet “Rewrite the Stars.” Jackman is an exceptionally charismatic performer, and his chemistry is off-the-charts great with Efron (of “Neighbors”), who plays stage actor Phillip Carlyle, drawn to the free spirit of the circus. Zendaya (of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) is a scene stealer as a trapeze artist who catches Carlyle’s eye (and the film’s treatment of their interracial romance, looked down upon by society, is somewhat nuanced), and Ferguson is exceptional as a phenomenally talented singer who calls Barnum’s bluff.
But those performances and musical numbers deserved to be in another movie or on a stage somewhere—not affiliated with Barnum. “The Greatest Showman” is an energetic time, but you’ll need mental gymnastics to separate yourself from the inclusivity and joy present onscreen with the man who actually existed, and who cared more for profit than for people.
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