P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) had a dream: one day he would be more than the son of a poor tailor. The dream came in the form of a song, it wasn’t very specific, but he believed he would someday “make it”. Having been shown kindness by a “freak” while he was penniless, he decided to hire these outcasts for his newest business venture: theater. Except that wasn’t what happened in real life. Underneath the modern pop songs, and energetic choreography, Hugh Jackman’s passion musical project The Greatest Showman was a rags-to-riches story with a historically inaccurate layer of paint.
Throughout the film’s runtime, The Greatest Showman was plagued by editing and narrative problems. They were constant companions that one couldn’t just wave away, and let the pretty pictures entertain. For a movie that set out to inspire and celebrate (the songs came nearly exclusively after failures and setbacks), it did very little to earn its emotional moments. It raced to all the high points and low points of emotions in lightspeed. The peaks and pits came in a flash and dissipated in the next moment, these moments were not allowed any room to breathe. Whatever poignant, uplifting message regarding classicism, racism and discrimination it tried to say fell flat next to the colorful cast and costumes, and the movie rained down messages like machine gun fire. The story wasn’t terribly original either. All the destinations the film was sprinting toward were very predictable. Simply think of the sappiest plot development, and the thread would lead there.
Emotional beats failing could also be attributed to editing. Plot lines resurfaced from intercuts with great gaps in between. As a result, story development felt contrived. The pacing of the famed singer (Rebecca Ferguson) and Barnum’s romantic tryst was far too fast; we see them introduced, thrown in a whirlwind of a tour, then suddenly in each other’s arms, all of this just to set up an unearned reprise. It also lacked establishing shots, people seemed to show up in new locations in no time. Not only that, more than half of the new members of the circus appeared without introduction as new musical numbers came up. Barnum’s personally handpicked crew, his second family, which was supposed to be his last connection with his humble roots, was filled with unfamiliar faces in the end. The euphoria of reconciliation undercut by the props-like quality of the final crew.
In the movie, Barnum had a feud with a critic about entertainment versus artistic value; it ended up being meta-commentary given the general reception. Songs are the heart and soul of a musical, but unfortunately not even they could bring enough joy save the narrative missteps. All of them were generic pop music with a similar lyrical theme. They were easy on the ears, but not catchy enough for the tunes to stick. They were utterly unmemorable. I walked out the theater unable to conjure up any of songs in my head. It really is a shame that the film’s flaws weighed down Hugh Jackman’s charismatic performance, the shiny production design (minus the horrendous CGI) and choreography. The Greatest Showman set its goals high but stumbled at every step it took.