Based on the life of American businessman and circus impresario P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is a mixed bag to say the least. At its best, it’s a bombastic crowd-pleaser of the peppiest order, brimming with glitzy production design and an earful of showstoppers courtesy of the songwriters behind La La Land. At worst, its afterthought of a plot uses the life of Barnum as a hammy excuse for a series of musical numbers, featuring the usually wonderful Rebecca Ferguson noticeably lip-synching to jarringly comical effect. Where you end up on this binary scale depends on your appreciation of feelgood Broadway musicals, how much you can stand Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron repeatedly displaying their pearly whites, and whether or not you mind that the portrayal of Barnum has been majorly sanitised. Indeed, the real-life practices of Jackman’s character don’t make the cut, as animal rights abuses and a central protagonist who was, to all intents and purposes, a bit of an exploitative shit, wouldn’t have sat particularly well with the film’s central message about embracing who you are as a person.
You can’t fault the performers: Jackman is at his charismatic best, Keala Settle shines as bearded lady Lettie Lutz, and Zendaya, here on trapezing duties, proves her show-stealing turn in last year’s Spider Man: Homecoming was no one-off. Nor can you fault first-time director Michael Gracey, who may not have delivered a hugely memorable feature debut, but displays unquestionable flair for slickly orchestrated set-pieces. However, had the by-the-numbers script explored the hubris-filled life of Barnum through the eyes of one of his soon-to-be exploited performers, The Greatest Showman could have been both catchy and significantly more daring. As it stands, it’s a cheesy, seriously flawed but fast-paced romp whose easy charm is hard to resist on the condition that you leave your brain outside the multiplex doors before the lights go down.
The Greatest Showman | Directed by Michael Gracey (US, 2017) with Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya. Starts January 4.
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