The hairs on my arm stood up when I first saw the trailer for Hugh Jackman’s “The Greatest Showman,” a movie musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, better known as the “Circus King,” the creator of the modern-day circus. The always solid Jackman’s range just in those two minutes along with a blend of the movie’s two best songs set my expectations high for the film.
Unfortunately, the actual finished piece failed to muster similar emotions its trailer did and may have set the bar too high going in, what I call “The Suicide Squad effect.”
While the film wasn’t bad by any stretch, and certainly not deserving of the harsh 55 percent rating it currently has on Rotten Tomatoes, it simply suffers from awkward pacing and shallow character development save for Barnum himself.
The concern of underdeveloped characters came in the first few minutes of the movie as it spends only one song and a total of about 10 minutes exploring Barnum’s past and the beginning of his relationship with his wife, who would become his main motivation throughout the film. While it does a good job of establishing the relationship between the two as something for the audience to buy into, Barnum’s desire to no longer be seen as a poor outsider and a member of high society that drives the plot could’ve had so much more depth to it but is literally glossed over by a montage.
The fast pace is similarly felt to fast forward to Barnum establishing the circus as a museum initially then changing it into a circus attracting “freaks” to perform for it. So in the first 45 minutes, most of the main plot and characters have been introduced including a side conflict of battling poor reviews. At this point, we know very little about the performers other than they’ve been outcasts their whole lives and we never see them bond as a group despite that point being pushed on the audience later in the film.
Zac Efron returns to his acting roots early in the second act as a musical star and does inject some new life into the movie that continues what is the main savior for the film: its cast and the musical aspect.
The cast of Jackman, Efron and pop-star-turned-actor Zendaya along with lesser known names like Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady give off such good performances not just in their acting but their singing abilities that despite a limited and rushed plot, elicit legitimate emotions for the characters that manages to keep the film afloat.
Essentially, the movie rushes through its conflicts and the resolution at the end all comes within the last 10 minutes so it lacks the payoff of Barnum finding a family in his coworkers and accepting them and his biological one as enough over fame and wealth. While the message is a bit cliché, it is a good one that was unfortunately wasted due to underdeveloped plot lines and characters.
As for the lyrics and choreography, the lyricists of the film are the same pair who wrote for the Oscar-winning “La La Land” so it’s no surprise the songs had emotional impact that consistently delivered. The film’s finale song “The Greatest Show” particularly stands out as an excellent piece of collaboration between the talents of Jackman, Efron, Zendaya and Settle that managed to showcase each one’s individual voice.
The choreography was mediocre, not standing out as particularly bad save for one song between Efron and Zendaya, none of it stood at as unique either.
Overall, “The Greatest Showman” is a perfect example of how important getting the right cast is for a film to be executed well as without the dynamic group, the movie would’ve felt far less satisfying than what we were left with. The musical aspect of the film is enough to overcome its problems with pacing and plot and leaves the viewer satisfied but not blown away.