As a person with a profound fondness for musicals, circuses and Zac Efron, I suspected before even buying a ticket that Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman” would be a hit for me, which was a mostly-accurate assumption. In a lot of ways, this film imbued me with a shining delight. There were a few aspects, however, that I found to be distinctly underwhelming.
“The Greatest Showman” is a largely-fictional biopic of P.T. Barnum, a nineteenth century showman and circus owner. It is the classic rags-to-riches story. As a young boy, P.T. Barnum falls in love with a girl of higher social stature, and though her parents make every effort to keep them apart, they find each other again when they are older. Barnum promises his bride, Charity, that he will take care of her and give her a good life. As the years progress, Barnum grows increasingly dismayed by their poverty, thus forming his show of curiosities, recruiting the outcasts of society from their time period. The movie is punctuated by pop musical numbers that I haven’t been able to stop listening to in days.
If I had to assign a single word to describe this movie, it would be “sensational,” which I’m sure would please Barnum’s character, as that is what he strove for in his own show. The visuals are absolutely stunning, the musical score is energetic, the choreography is compelling and the narrative is heartwarming. It was a pleasure to sit back and witness the sensation, to see dreams come true right in front of me. When I left the theater, I was beaming and already aching to watch the movie again.
The film was not without flaws, though. Unfortunately, it fell flat in one very important area: characterization. The actors put on an incredibly convincing performance, so I was still able to become emotionally invested in all the characters, but the only dynamic character present is Barnum. His tough background, his aspirations, his flaws—they’re all laid out for the viewers to see, and the same cannot be said about any other character in the movie. The so-called curiosities that Barnum has selected to star in his show are arguably the most fascinating aspect of the film, but they are underutilized. We hardly get to know them, and we don’t witness much growth from them. Their presence provides little more than fodder for Barnum’s emotional journey.
There is also a major subplot in the movie that was nothing but a waste of screen time. The romance between Barnum’s assistant Carlyle and a trapeze artist in the show is rushed and unnecessary. While it does demonstrate the racism and toxic attitudes of the time, that could have been achieved in a more economical way. Instead of squeezing in another romance when there is already a much more developed, complicated one unraveling, I would have liked to see the other plotlines expanded.
“The Greatest Showman” took my breath away, but upon deeper inspection, this film suffers from the same problem for which Barnum’s shows were criticized—it’s an illusion. It appears brilliant and dazzling, but it lacks a certain substance. Gracey tried to cram too much into one hour and forty-five minutes. Even still, “The Greatest Showman” is a charming cinematic experience that I absolutely ate up despite all of my critiques. While it might not be the greatest show, it certainly makes an impression.