The Greatest Show on Earth, after 146 years, gave its last performance in May of 2017. That iconic, world famous circus was the brainchild of Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), an author, publisher, philanthropist and “The Greatest Showman.”
If you are a fan of musicals, then “The Greatest Showman” will appeal to you. I am not a fan of musicals.
Michael Gracey directs the script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon that takes the life story of P.T. Barnum, a life that spanned some 60 years as a master showman, and compacts it all it down to a few short years in the film. This compression sacrifices character development in favor of the many big, blustery and colorful musical numbers that abound. These many musical interludes all felt far too modern, more akin to American Idol than to the Greatest Show on Earth, especially Sarah Ferguson as Swedish opera ingénue Jenny Lind (who was a real person).
While Hugh Jackman gives his all to the song and dance that dominate the film, the story never lets me get closer than an arm’s length away while it should be embracing me in the story of the man who may well be “The Greatest Showman.” I give it a C+.
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) was the son of a tailor with big dreams. After scrounging enough money together to buy John Scudder's American Museum in New York City, transforming it into a carnival of freaks and sensational attractions. But it wasn't until he met the 'Swedish Nightingale,' opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, "The Girl on the Train"), and made a deal for her to tour the U.S. for the first time that he became "The Greatest Showman."
Don't go to tyro director Michael Gracey's musical expecting a P.T. Barnum biopic. Jenny Bicks (HBO's 'Sex and the City') and Bill Condon's ("Chicago," "Dreamgirls") screenplay stretches the truth and condenses time, Gracey's overly modern interpretation wearing its message of diversity and acceptance on its sleeve. Call it the 'Hamilton' effect, misguided as it may be here. It is ironic that it arrives seven months after the closure of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus after increasing concern over animal welfare, animals rendered here in obvious CGI. Songs from "La La Land's" Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are a forgettable mix of contemporary pablum and Broadway belting, their most egregious effort a power ballad for Jenny Lind. The film's best number is 'Rewrite the Stars,' a duet for Zac Efron's socialite Phillip Carlyle and the mixed race trapeze artist (Zendaya, "Spider-Man: Homecoming," doing her own stunt work) he's fallen in love with. They are both fictional characters, but many members of Barnum's troupe - Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng and a Bearded Lady (the noteworthy Keala Settle) - are represented. The film does improve in its second half, but this movie about the 'Prince of Humbugs' had me muttering hokum.
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