CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Unruly Crowds Violently Demanding a Good Show

Release Date: December 20, 2017

PT Barnum, the famed 19th Century circus purveyor, just wanted to make audiences happy. Sure, he trafficked in exploitation and probably a fair bit of flimflam, but his name lives on as one synonymous with showmanship. So why shouldn’t he have a foot-stomping big-screen musical celebrating his life and legacy? Thus, we have The Greatest Showman, with Hugh Jackman donning the top hat and cane, which zips along and finishes up in just over 100 minutes, thus avoiding the exhaustion that musicals are always at risk of. Its delights are mostly surface-level, but not to be dismissed, as it celebrates freaks and tolerance, while pooh-poohing stuffiness and losing sight of what’s important.

The songwriting, courtesy of La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is unrelentingly bombastic. It both fits the subject matter and forces the audience to surrender to the spectacle. The effect is initially chaotic. The opening number drops us right into the lavishness, starting off not so much in media res, but rather in finis res. Eventually it settles into a bearable rhythm, but do prepared for some dizzying and overstuffed cinematography.

There are a few classic conflicts to this story that have me a little distressed for how long they remain inadequately unaddressed. For example – and this is the crux – what really drives Barnum? Is he more concerned about putting on a great show or paying off a lifelong grudge by showing up his rich, pompous father-in-law? Do his loyalties lie more with the freaks who made his name or the opera singer (Rebecca Ferguson) who can win over high society for him? I mean, the answers he seeks should be super obvious, as all he has to do is look at and listen to his wife (Michelle Williams) and daughters and know that he has already won at life. And what of his business partner (Zac Efron) – when he will be willing to publicly display his love for the black trapeze artist (Zendaya) who has won his heart?

These issues are all eventually resolved to sufficient satisfaction, though they do skimp a bit on the hard work of rectification and forgiveness. But that speed works according to the logic of musicals. Emotions are so outsize that genuine reunions can be forged over the few minutes of a reprise. Ultimately, it works out well enough that it leaves me with a smile, and if it has you feeling the same, then The Greatest Showman has fulfilled P.T. Barnum’s hope for happiness.

The Greatest Showman is Recommended If You Like: Hugh Jackman singing more often than Zac Efron, Musicals at their most achingly earnest

Grade: 3 out of 5 Trapezes