Warning: Rant Incoming, Skip Past the First Four Paragraphs to the Review
“PT Barnum was a terrible man. He was not someone to be admired. Barnum exploited people. The Greatest Showman is an utter lie.” A 19th century man profiteering on whatever he could was not a saintly individual. A human had a dark side. A movie where people inexplicably break out into song and dance and show Broadway-level talent right out the gate is not a historical document. A movie that was never meant to be an accurate representation of history and was made into a family-friendly extravaganza for the holiday season may have left out a number of details on purpose. All that and sports at 11 on ABC7 Eyewitness News.
Can we please stop judging The Greatest Showman for what it didn’t set itself out to be: A biographical drama about an admittedly fascinating man’s real life? Can we instead judge it on what it actually wants to be: a family-tailored, fun-filled ride for which the family can enjoy during the holiday season? Besides, the Barnum presented in The Greatest Showman is not exactly a saintly figure either. I usually defend reviewers with whose opinions I disagree with. I myself hold unpopular opinions for which I have been ridiculed. But much of what I have read about The Greatest Showman is not even about The Greatest Showman, it’s about the real-life historical figures. That’s okay, really, but I think it is better that people look it up in actual books or historical websites rather than news outlets.
You might find it odd that a self-declared lover of history would be annoyed that a movie is not historically accurate. My issue, however, is that unlike other movies, without naming names, that purport to be about the actual events, The Greatest Showman and the people behind it never sold it as an accurate portrayal. It was always sold as a retooling fo real events into a fun movie for the whole family about accepting differences and celebrating them and the joys and wonders they can create.
The Imitation Game can fabricate entire personalities opposite of real-life people and receive critical acclaim. Selma, an otherwise accurate portrayal, can fabricate the views and actions of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (a president whom I personally hold with contempt for reasons related to an older relative’s Vietnam War service) and receive critical acclaim. Quo Vadis can insert several fictional characters and events into the real-life story of the Great Fire of Rome while portraying the myth of Nero fiddling while Rome burned (even though fiddles did not exist then) and still be a great movie (but never tell an Italian that Nero did not set fire to Rome). Frank Miller can write utter fan-fiction of the Battle of Thermopylae and have said fan-fiction be adapted into a Zack Snyder movie and both can receive critical acclaim. War movies have real-life people turned into single, composite characters all the time for the sake of coherent storytelling, the recent Dunkirk for instance. The point is, movies based on real events fabricate things all the time. Sometimes they work, sometimes they do not, depending on what the movie is trying to achieve. So can we please save all the talk we’ve had for the biographical drama on PT Barnum rather than the family musical which may or may not someday go to Broadway that people seem to have mistaken it for?
Rant Over. Review Proper Begins Now
The Greatest Showman is a fictionalized (if that was not obvious by the fact that it’s a musical) tale of the life of PT Barnum. No doubt the real-life Barnum led a fascinating life, but that’s not what the movie is here to tell us. Instead first-time director Michael Gracey has teamed with veteran actor and singer and fellow Australian Hugh Jackman to repurpose the Barnum tale into a musical, classic Hollywood style extravaganza. On that note, Gracey and Jackman have made a competent, fun movie that hits you right when it needs to.
Jackman’s Phineas Taylor Barnum is the poor son of a tailor who falls in love with a woman named Charity (Michelle Williams), from an upper-class, wealthy family. The Barnums struggle in life financially. Having lost several jobs over the years and with two children to feed, Phineas needs to strike gold in something. Then, it hits him!
Deciding to utilize people’s fascination with the exotic, Phineas opens “Barnum’s American Museum”, displaying such objects. His daughters say he should have something alive as “there’s too many dead things”. To that end, Phineas begins recruiting “freaks” to his museum, eventually evolving into a circus, and becoming rich. I’m sure that from there, and from the advertisements, you can determine what happens throughout the movie.
This is not a deep story, by any means. But it is not trying to be. The Greatest Showman is not about the plot. It’s about the spectacle. The excitement. The music. The Greatest Showman mostly succeeds there. The set pieces are beautiful, the characters are joyous, the music has quite a few catchy, exciting songs that I’m sure will soon become regulars at elementary, middle, and high school talent shows and karaoke bars. I came out of the theater singing a few myself.
I hope that this movie succeeds financially because with the success of movies like The Greatest Showman and La La Land (both movies having their music written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) perhaps more movie musicals can be made. Especially with the cast presented here! Go and watch! Bring your friends! Bring your parents! Siblings! Cousins! Grandparents! I certainly did!
But those elephants and lions! I expect better of the studio that gave us 2017’s best movie, War for the Planet of the Apes! Well, assuming 20th Century Fox still exists in the next year or two.
Image from www.vogue.com