Does it bother you that everything you're selling is fake?
Whether or not you enjoy The Greatest Showman may well hinge on your expectations. If you're looking for a gritty biopic of P T Barnum, which wrestles with the contradictions of a huckster-philanthropist and which confronts the morality of his touring 'freak-show', then keep searching. If however you're up for a Moulin Rouge-style musical fantasy that uses the bare facts of the man's life as a springboard for a crowd-pleasing tale of common humanity, then get set for great night at the movies. The distinction is between films 'inspired by' and those 'based on' a true story, and in this case it's key. Showman is most definitely the former.
The Barnum of the film (Hugh Jackman getting back with eagerness to his musical-theatre roots) may have the real guy's flair for show-business and dreams of glory, but he's also instinctively drawn to the outsiders and 'freaks' of the world in a purely benevolent way. So when he creates his museum of oddities and populates it with dwarfs, Siamese twins and bearded ladies, he's doing so to help them find a place in the world as much as to make a fortune off their backs. His wife and daughters are able to throw themselves into supporting the venture as something gloriously altruistic and innocent, and we, as an audience, are made to feel good about the whole thing. We're on the side of the freaks from the start, and Barnum isn't exploiting them here - he's giving them a voice.
It all sounds over-sentimentalised and crass, and it easily could have been, had The Great Showman not been made with such zest and technical aplomb. This is a big, brash, colour-saturated family movie that attacks the sheer cheesiness of its storyline with the sharpness of its production and the overpowering feelgood of its tunes.
Because this is a musical - did I mention that? Not just a showbiz movie with musical interludes. Like La La Land it's the real deal - characters bursting spontaneously into song on an emotional whim. The first time, when the pre-teen P T Barnum begins to emote tunefully to little Charity, his future wife, is the only moment when it threatened to bother me. Then instantly the movie's momentum took over, carrying the audience through a whirlwind of tightly edited visual storytelling to Barnum's adulthood, as the same song plays out.
That's one of Showman's major virtues - the tidal force of its narrative, a story propelled by one massive contemporary song after another. (Like the aforementioned Moulin Rouge the soundtrack is deliberately at odds with the period setting, only this time the songs are all original.) It's a style that works particularly well in scenes like the one where Barnum persuades young businessman Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join him, or when Carlyle attempts to woo the Barnum circus girl (Spiderman: Homecoming's Zendaya) who has charmed him. Rather than acting as interludes in the drama, the songs are essential to it, driving the plot and underscoring the film's themes of equality and diversity.
The movie's fervour is apparent throughout the cast. Jackman is commanding as Barnum, Michelle Williams radiant as his wife. Efron and Zendaya provide a touching second-string love story, often told more through glances than words. Rebecca Ferguson shakes off memories of The Snowman (she was good, but no one came away unscathed from that debacle) to shine as opera singer Jenny Lind, while Keala Settle proves the film's breakout star as defiant bearded lady Lettie Lutz.
It all adds up to a powerful concoction, that knocked the cynic out of me any time it threatened to stir. This is a movie that knows what it wants to be. Playing fast and loose with the historical facts of Barnum's life, it's a modern fable of crossing boundaries, celebrating difference and embracing your true self. It's loud, it's proud and frankly it's not a bad way to round off the year.
Gut Reaction: Swept along by power ballads and glorious visuals, and consistently entertained.
Ed's Verdict: Story-wise this is free with the facts and cornier than the contents of the buckets they were selling in the foyer. But it's also great entertainment value, and packing a message of inclusiveness with which it's hard to take issue.