Maybe P.T. Barnum was right when he basically claimed that making people happy was more important than being truthful about how you’re doing it.
However, the musical biopic The Greatest Showman takes that notion to the extreme in its slick portrayal of the famed circus impresario as both a fraudulent huckster and as a warm-hearted entrepreneur trying to bring entertainment to the masses.
Inspired by a true story yet taking place squarely in a fantasy world, the film delivers a ham-fisted uplifting message about inclusion and features some upbeat songs — written by the Oscar-winning lyricists from La La Land — although its script ultimately lacks depth and doesn’t stand up well to logical scrutiny.
The story takes place in 19th century New York, where Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is the product of a working-class family who winds up marrying his aristocratic childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams). Barnum’s goal is fame and fortune, which started as a meager museum of “oddities,” essentially sideshow freaks who would shock visitors as much as they would entertain.
The idea proves both audacious and brilliant, bringing both supporters and detractors. Yet as Barnum and a young business partner (Zac Efron) reap the rewards, his outsider performers — including a sultry trapeze artist (Zendaya), a bearded lady (Kaela Settle), and a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) — see the traveling show’s burgeoning popularity as a vehicle for empowerment.
The screenplay tends to oversimplify the conflicts and biographical details in the story to serve its two parallel narratives — Barnum’s rags-to-riches tale, and the struggle of his eccentric performers to be recognized in mainstream society. Every dilemma, it seems, can be solved with a round of drinks or a production number, or both.
Rookie director Michael Gracey, whose background is in commercials and visual effects, keeps the action moving with some well-choreographed music sequences, even if the period depiction of New York’s socioeconomic melting pot is generally bland.
The film’s historical perspective is an uneven mix of fabrication and speculation, of which its imaginative protagonist might approve. Jackman’s charismatic charm and playfulness provides a consistent benefit, aiding the film’s mission of obscuring its narrative flaws through sensory overload.
The Greatest Showman has a bittersweet timeliness, of course, after Barnum’s venerable traveling circus closed earlier this year. In that sense, there’s nostalgic value to this three-ringed origin story. Yet the overall impact is more cloying than charming.