ReelBob: ‘The Greatest Showman’ ★★½

By Bob Bloom

“The Greatest Showman” is like a three-ring circus: a lot of noise, flash and glitter but no substance underneath.

This family-friendly, PG-rated musical about the legendary P.T. Barnum works very hard to gain your approval. You can almost feel the sweat dripping off the screen.

The film is driven to please audiences. It’s like a child in a roomful of adults who tries various disruptive behaviors to gain attention.

That especially goes for the musical and dance numbers. They are lively and entertaining but with a whiff of desperation as if they are feverishly waving their arms, saying, “Hey look at us. Please give us an Oscar nomination for best song!”

Hugh Jackman, who is no stranger to musicals, stars as Phineas T. Barnum, the son of a poor tailor who, more than anything, wants recognition.

Barnum is a dreamer and a bit of a huckster. He sprouts ideas like weeds in a garden.

He is so focused on succeeding that he loses sight of what is really important in his life — his family.

Barnum is so blinded by ambition that he allows his true foundation to crumble.

Jackman’s portrayal is rather one-dimensional. His Barnum is a likable and charismatic individual whose boundless aspirations compel him to continually reach too high and exceed his grasp.

Michelle Williams has the thankless role of supporting wife. Her Charity Barnum is mostly patient and understanding, despite her husband’s mostly frantic antics.

Zac Efron simply looks pretty as blue-blood Phillip Carlyle, who Barnum persuades to join his troupe in a bid to attract a higher class of clientele to his museum of wonders, who includes Zendaya as a lovely trapeze artist.

Which brings us to “The Greatest Showman’s” handling of the various human oddities — usually labeled freaks in a less politically incorrect time.

Barnum builds his show around a bearded lady, a midget, a giant, a tattooed man and a black brother-and-sister acrobatic team.

Director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, basically use them as props. They are more symbols than flesh-and-blood people.

At times, the film is its own worst enemy. A prime example is Barnum’s securing famed European opera singer Jenny Lind (a lovely Rebecca Ferguson) to tour the United States.

Lind is touted as the world’s greatest singer, having performed at La Scala and other opera houses across Europe. So, when she steps on stage to sing in her American debut, her presentation and song sounds like a tune plucked from Celine Dion’s Las Vegas show.

The songs and dance numbers are very energetic, but after a time they begin to run together in your mind. Only the love ballad, “Rewrite the Stars,” sung by Efron and Zendaya, stands out.

“The Greatest Showman” tries to cram too much into its 105-minute running time, touching on such issues as interracial relationships, intolerance and class distinction.

Despite all its failings, the movie is essentially an entertaining experience. It’s lively, optimistic and embraceable — a good time for family viewing over the holidays.

Musicals are basically fantasies, and “The Greatest Showman” is no exception. It transports you into a 19th century world using 21st century sensibilities.

Sometimes the two mesh; more often, they clash. Still, enough glitz and fairy dust exist to bring a smile to your face.

I am a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). I also review Blu-rays and DVDs. I can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Links to my reviews can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
2½ stars out of 4
(PG), thematic elements, including a brawl and a fire

  • ReelBob

    Are you a fan of musicals? How about Hugh Jackman? Share your views on “The Greatest Showman” and we can discuss what the movie did right and what it did badly.