Ladies and Gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for…
You guys know the phrase “Life imitates Art”? Because that’s almost exactly explains the The Greatest Showman. The movie talks a lot about critics not being able to see the value of something that’s whimsical and fun, and that’s exactly what critics of The Greatest Showman did. Critics have overall been very mixed about the film, with a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes for historical inaccuracy, which I’ll touch upon later. The general audience, on the other hand, overall has a very positive view of the film with a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. That being said, let me tell you why The Greatest Showman is the best movie ever:
I unapologetically love this movie. Enough that I saw it six times in the movie theater, and after the second viewing, immediately went home and bought the art book, the soundtrack, and pre-ordered the DVD/Blu-Ray/Whatever. I’m sitting here and trying to figure out what to talk about first, and I’ve got the dumbest smile on my face remembering all my favorite parts…which was pretty much all of it, if I’m being honest. I went into this movie completely blind. The only kind of advertising I saw for it was at a swanky store that had Hugh Jackman in the fancy ringmaster’s coat, and I decided it looked interesting enough to watch. I thought it was going to be something like the Prestige. I didn’t hear any hype about the movie at all, let alone that it was a musical, and boy, and I glad I went in blind.
The Greatest Showman is a very loose retelling of how Barnum and Bailey’s Circus was created. The opening scene of the movie seems cheesy as hell. It’s a big crowd stomping their feet to the beat, which looks like it came straight out of an Imagine Dragons concert taking place in the 1930s. And it really is cheesy and cliché, but after watching the whole scene revealed, it’s pretty awesome, and once the music actually kicks in it’s even better. It looks like a typical circus with the trapeze artists, the animals, all of it, but there’s a specific part in the song that made me go, “Whoa, the WHOLE SOUNDTRACK of the movie is going to be like this? This is AMAZING,” and it’s right before there’s a transition showing you how Barnum (Hugh Jackman)gets to this point. I love this as a story telling technique. It tells me that 1) nobody is going to die, and 2) Barnum is going to be successful, but I just don’t know how. So that’s part of my anxiety that’s calmed down and I can enjoy the rest of the movie.
The real draw for me in this movie was the music. I don’t think there’s a bad song on this soundtrack. I honestly don’t think I’ve gone a day without listening to it after the first time, it’s THAT good. I never saw La-La-Land, but apparently it’s by the same artists. And if anything I heard about La-La-Land is true, the music in that was even better than The Greatest Showman. I wouldn’t, however, recommend listening to the soundtrack before watching the movie. Part of what caught me off guard was how well the songs served as a narrative. Musicals are questionable about that sometimes, I know, but The Greatest Showman does a very good job of using the music as primarily character defining moments. They’re not just songs for the sake of having songs (I’m looking at you, Cats), and they’re not always there to just move the plot along. There’s a very authentic connection to the characters and give us a creative way of giving us insights to them. The songs might be generic in lyrics (I disagree) but they’re so damn catchy.
As for character defining moments, there’s a moment where Barnum is trying to convince Philip Carlyle (ZAC EFRON, LADIES AND GENTLEMAN!) to come work for him. This scene takes place in a bar, and let me tell you how incredible this choreography is. As someone who grew up with High School Musical, I was very confused. I’m used to a weenie version of Zac Efron whose voice didn’t quite start breaking yet. I couldn’t get out of the HSM headspace until this scene. His dancing in this is top notch, which is somewhat hilarious in hindsight: he didn’t want to be in anymore musicals in fear of being typecast. The bartender in the scene with the moustache doesn’t say a word and manages to be a major highlight of the scene. It helps that the bartender is the assistant choreographer of the movie, but even in negative reviews, the bartender stands out. There’s another scene that involves Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), the trapeze artist, and Carlyle trying to convince them to be together and forego conventional society because of race things, and just… it’s so beautiful. I’m going to pull from this, since it sums it up so much better than I can:
The whole scene is staged in such a way that for the first half of the song, Phillip is continuously trying to pull Anne back to him each time she tries to pull away. He’s trying to hold her in place at his level, on the ground. Even when she soars up into the air, he keeps trying to literally pull her back down: grabbing on to her hand, her waist, the rope, her hoop. Anything to keep her in place with him.
But for the second half of the song, Phillip stops trying to hold her down and instead follows after her into the air, basically saying through the choreography, “If we can’t be together in my world, can we be together in yours?”
And only once they’re both in the air - the space that reflects the freedom the circus gives them - does Anne allow herself to consider the idea that they could actually be together. Phillip stops waiting for her to stay on the ground with him and puts in the work to be with her, literally scaling the walls of the theater to reach her. In more ways than one, they end up finding a balance and supporting each other’s weight for the rest of the song.
Remember how I said that the music gives us characterizations? So does the choreography, and that on a whole other level. There’s also another scene where Barnum’s wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) is alone in her house and she’s singing about how she’s scared, but she trusts Barnum while he’s on tour with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and she dances by lots of windows and curtains. When she passes through the curtains, she’s with Barnum, but when she passes through the window, you see she’s alone. I can’t do this scene enough justice, but it’s so gorgeously done it still stands out from my first viewing as one of my favorite scenes.
The themes! It can’t be a good wholesome movie without some kind of morals and themes! And while most of the time I roll my eyes at themes, I did appreciate the way the way the movie handled acceptance, family, and racism. The movie hammers home that the best thing you can do is be yourself! Barnum constantly tries to reach higher, and Charity calls him out on it, which is a nice change from the main character being infallible, but he realizes in the end that he could have just been happy with what he had. The Circus “freaks” realize that they don’t need anybody else because they have each other, and just because they’re different doesn’t mean their bad. Carlyle and Anne get a fairytale ending, despite fighting a racist and classist society. What I gleaned from the movie the most is that it’s worth taking risks if you have people around you who are going to support you no matter what, which let me tell you, I need reminders of every day.
Okay, but enough raving. Let’s get to the bad stuff, because I know that’s all some of you are here for:
The CGI is somewhat distracting. I mentioned earlier that I loved the opening scene. I loved it, but it also hit a lot of uncanny valley notes. I couldn’t for my life tell if the lions were real or not, but they just seemed off and it’s very odd and distracting from the music and the overall atmosphere. I kept staring at the damn lions and elephants and telling myself to ignore them because they looked so weird. It’s also painfully obvious at some points. The real P.T. Barnum didn’t treat his animals very well, so make with that what you will.
I also mentioned early that critics hated on this movie because it’s not historically accurate. P.T. Barnum was not a very nice person who mistreated animals, so a lot of people saw this as glorifying history…to which I have to ask, what exactly were they expecting? The movie was rated PG. It was advertised as a musical. Were….people expecting Hugh Jackman to sing about beating some animals to jump through hoops? Were they expecting the movie to tackle things like polio? I get that people are unhappy about changing history, I really do. But I also don’t understand what they wanted out of a feel good musical. Also, if I could argue against this: the movie takes place from P.T. Barnum’s point of view. He literally calls himself The Greatest Showman and admits to hoodwinking people. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that he’s retelling this story with as much embellishing and truth as his character says he is? It’s a movie about an entertainer selling people lies. Which means that the movie is…. selling people with lies. Makes sense to me.
I know this was a major problem for some people, and admittedly, they are right: The plot is fairly simple. Man’s goal is to impress everyone. Man does a lot of elaborate things to impress everyone. Man loses everything and find the meaning of True Friendship. There really isn’t much more in terms of plot. It is a simple plot, but I think the music appropriately fills in all the gaps of the story and keep it interesting. While I agree this shouldn’t be the focus of the movie, I appreciated it for what it was.
Final verdict: Feel good movie with good music and a simple plot. That’s good enough for me.
9/10, minus one point because plot.