ROLL UP, roll up!
PT BARNUM’S circus is in town and putting on a flamboyant, theatrical big-screen show to warm our hearts this damp, miserable January.
Trading historical accuracy for smiles, we are led by affable ringmaster Hugh Jackman who plays a more attractive (in every sense of the word) version of Barnum. A Barnum – boasting a full head of hair – that places greater emphasis on his starry-eyed ambitions and family man spirit than his ruthless capitalist pursuits.
Through this romantic lens, we follow the great entertainer from his dirt-poor childhood as a tailor’s son to his grand invention of the circus. All to the tune of head-bobbing pop numbers (courtesy of La La Land duo Justin Paul and Benj Pasek) and dances sequences choreographed with more blustering energy than Storm Eleanor.
Jackman’s supporting acts are all crowd-pleasers. Michelle Williams matches Jackman’s charm as Barnum’s childhood love and devoted wife Charity. Paul Sparks is instantly dull and dislikeable as Barnum’s biggest critic. The two joust over the value of high and low culture, the former of which Barnum cannot resist when he meets renowned Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
Played by a pitch-perfect Rebecca Ferguson, Lind throws a wrench into Barnum’s dream when he is left enchanted by her classy, red-headed sex appeal. An allure seemingly strong enough to threaten Charity’s homely blonde beauty. Barnum, unable to take his eyes off the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, whisks Lind away on a dollar-burning tour of America looking to finally win over the upper-class snobs who deride his circus.
Elsewhere, Zac Efron reminds us of his Troy Bolton days (and that he is a more than adequate singer) in a fun turn as Barnum’s business partner Phillip Carlyle. Born into wealth, Carlyle finds purpose in circus life but must overcome his pretentious roots to pursue his true love Anne Wheeler (the excellent Zendaya).
The two first lock eyes as Anne, a trapeze artist, is in mid-flight. This slow-motion moment – almost – feels worthy of Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land, although The Greatest Showman never quite reaches that masterful brass ring.
On the note of La La Land, Anne and Carlyle dare to copy Mia and Seb’s Rebel Without a Cause hand-holding moment during Lind’s first performance. A disapproving glance back from an audience member is enough for Carlyle to let Anne’s hand slip (a trust you should never break with a trapeze artist).
Carlyle’s doubts about Anne speak to The Great Showman’s overarching themes of prejudice. Themes that the circus attractions – or ‘freaks’ – serve the collective purpose of driving home. The waywardness of this overhanded moralism is on full display during the film’s finale, as elephants join in with the pyro and ballyhoo. Everyone is all smiles, but I imagine PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) will have been on the phone to help poor Dumbo out of his circus shackles.
The Greatest Showman also features a few moments of faux-jeopardy, including a quickly extinguished – and emotionally errant – fire escape scene. This may be the circus, but the landing pads are never too far from sight.
Despite the occasional blemish, the bells and whistles are loud enough to drown out any disapproving tuts.
A cinematic sleight of hand that Barnum would have been proud of.