There are those who LIVE for musicals, and there are those who cringe just at the very word. Both demographics may notice Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman’s appeal, however, as it is well crafted and packs a powerful punch right from the opening sequence. The first scene is no-holds-barred action-music-dance and hinges on the power-pop sensibility of the main theme. Unlike many musicals, this is full of radio-friendly pure pop hooks and will remain in your head long after the film ends. To predict high sales for the OST would be fair. The songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (with producer Joseph Trapanese, and a score by John Debney)’s songs are Broadway-caliber power on the big screen. They are feel-good, authentic, anthemic, and tap into that part of the human brain that reacts favorably to certain notes or sounds. Earworm, some might call the phenomena. Of course, if you despise the genre, you’ll probably curse those pesky earworms (Oscar, you’ll probably award this film for its songs, huh?).
Hugh Jackman, in the fictionalized role of real-life P.T. Barnum, shows his chops as a singer, if any audiences were still unaware of his vocal merits. Onscreen only momentarily, his younger self is played by a very powerful young singer (Ellis Ruben) as well. And hey, did anybody know that Michelle Williams can sing and dance quite adequately? She won’t be cutting a rug or signing record deals soon, but she is surprisingly acceptable for her role as Barnum’s wife. She did after all, sing in musicals as a child. As with many musicals, emphasis is placed on the audiovisuals, and less on the acting. In its genre, this might deserve a pass, even if the majority of the dialogue is delivered in a corny or alternately, wooden way.
Computer graphics are used mostly to infuse magic into everyday scenes. This is refreshing, compared to so many commercial films that use CG as a crutch, or to fill in holes where expertise is lacking. The cinematography here is also strong. Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey’s use of shadow and light gives a bit more artistic flair to the otherwise very Hollywoodian ensemble. Also Hollywoodian are the cheesy romances straddling race and social class. But in its category, it is well done. One of the most touching sequences (if one admits the presence of their own mushy heart), is the on land-and-air contemporary dance routine (set to singing, of course) between Zac Efron and Internet darling Zendaya.
So the fictitious Barnum may be seen as a con-man to most, but has imagineered an entire universe where society’s so-called losers and freaks are accepted, and become family to one another. As most clichéd ‘losers’ in contemporary film become snobbish when they gain power, fame, money and attention, Barnum is no different. Over time, he conveniently forgets the ‘family’ he has created. But when the chips are down, it is exactly this family that welcomes him back with open arms. These people of all different stripes, deemed lesser because of skin color, social rank, or physical particularities, will win the hearts of the viewer. Spectators with their own disabilities and social issues will especially understand the real-life suffering of these characters. Barnum’s performers are viewed by society as fit only for a circus. But they have feelings. They have talents. Merit as living creatures. The Greatest Showman is a Christmas movie about acceptance and imagination. Dare to imagine.