First thing’s first: Though it features a character named “P.T. Barnum,” “The Greatest Showman” is in no way a factual account of the life of the celebrated 19th-century circus founder and huckster. In fact, you’ll have to completely set aside any unsavory stories you may have heard about the real-life Barnum, because this one is played by the ever-charming Hugh Jackman. Resistance is futile.
Directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, the musical never aspires to be anything more than a heaping helping of PG-rated holiday cheese – something the whole family can partake of. For the most part, it meets that low bar, though you’ll have to suspend disbelief at every turn.
The story begins during Barnum’s boyhood, when, while working in his father’s tailor shop, he falls in love with Charity, the daughter of a wealthy client who would never let his only child run off with the son of a tradesman. But once the girl becomes an adult, played by Michelle Williams, she can’t be talked out of marrying her beloved. (Just forget, for a second, that Jackman is 12 years older than Williams.)
Fast-forward a few years, to when they’re parents to a couple of kids and struggling to make ends meet. As if on cue, Barnum dreams up a novel way to make money, via a museum of curiosities, complete with human attractions. After putting out a call for unique individuals, he forms his troupe during a musical montage: There’s the bearded lady (Keala Settle) and tiny Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), not to mention the sibling trapeze artists W.D. and Anne Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Zendaya). When W.D. warns people won’t like seeing black performers onstage, the showman replies, with a knowing smirk: “Oh, I’m counting on it.”
At first, Barnum isn’t entirely sensitive to the needs of his employees. When he tries to recruit the man whom he would christen Tom Thumb – a dwarf who isn’t interested in having people stare at him – Barnum replies, “They’re laughing anyway. You might as well get paid.” But pretty soon, he’s as progressive as a 21st-century Twitter liberal, empowering his group of former pariahs to live their best lives. In other words, you won’t find any evidence here of Joice Heth, the black slave who, in real life, was exhibited by Barnum as George Washington’s 161-year-old childhood “mammy.” Nor does the film include the public autopsy he staged after Heth’s death.
Not that this sanitized Barnum is a saint. He finds success addictive, becoming a social climber, to the dismay of the beatific Charity, who seems to have enjoyed living in a hovel with a leaky roof. Meanwhile, Barnum’s new partner, a blue blood with the appropriately hoity-toity name of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), starts falling for Anne. That’s a recipe for getting disinherited.
Perhaps these two lovebirds, along with the rest of the quirky cast, can show Barnum there’s more to life than money and fame.
Will you buy any of this? Not really. In part, that’s because everything about the movie feels artificial, from the singers’ blatantly auto-tuned voices to the CGI acrobatics. The song-and-dance numbers clearly are meant to wow, but technology drains away some of their awesomeness. “Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” Barnum is asked, at one point, by his nemesis (a newspaper critic, naturally). It’s hard not to apply the question to the film itself. Always quick with a comeback, Barnum retorts, “Do the smiles seem fake?”
He makes a good point, and it’s almost enough to give the movie a pass. After all, there are certainly joys to be had, from Settle’s big, heart-rending number “This Is Me” (recently nominated for a Golden Globe for best original song) to an amusing duet in which Barnum and his partner attempt to drink each other under the table. (What’s that you say about Barnum being a teetotaler? Give it up already.)
Some of the music, which was written by “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, sounds like it’s straining a little too hard for mainstream pop appeal, suggesting that the soundtrack may not be a timeless one. Here, though, staying power is about as important as historical accuracy.
Don’t overthink it, in other words. All “Showman” asks of you is you give yourself over to the holiday-cheer machine, if you can. Like the circus, it’s an experience that’s been engineered for this precise moment in time, and not one minute longer.