Charting the rise of Phineus Taylor Barnum from his days of being too poor to eat to the famous theatrical entrepreneur we remember today, director Michael Gracey has created a throwback to old fashioned musicals, with modern pop tunes and a healthy dose of technology thrown into the mix and ended up with a rip-roaring romp for all the family to enjoy.
P T Barnum is desperate to provide a better life for his wife and two daughters, so cons his way to a bank loan and begins his journey into show business. Collecting an ensemble of oddities and freakish curiosities shunned by society, Barnum is determined to find a home in the theatre for his new-found friends whilst showcasing their talents and, of course, making some money along the way. Although the cash rolls in, respectability isn’t being earned, so Barnum gambles it all on a worldwide tour promoting singer, Jenny Lind.
Hugh Jackman’s natural charm makes him instantly likeable, and even though his Barnum errs on the edge of roguishness and he jeopardises his relationships for, arguably, selfish reasons his charisma keeps you rooting for him when, perhaps, under a lesser performer you’d be willing him to fail.
Annoyingly handsome Zac Efron joins the circus as Barnum’s junior partner, Philip Carlyle, and soon falls for trapeze performer, Anne Wheeler, a relationship frowned upon in Victorian society where social standing is of the utmost importance and racial prejudice is rife. Carlyle’s struggle to admit his feelings is central to the film’s theme of learning acceptance and deciding what matters in life.
The strong cast features excellent performances, particularly from Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson as Lind (it’s worth noting that Rebecca Ferguson’s singing was dubbed by Loren Allred, an interesting decision which offers up the question of why an actress capable of singing the part wasn’t cast instead), Zendaya as Wheeler, Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife and Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz, but what sets this musical apart are the songs. Penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land fame, every single one of them is a smash. From huge choral numbers to intimate confessionals the feel-good factor is cranked up to 11 and they’re a joy to hear. Incredibly melodic, your foot will be tapping and your mouth smiling at the sheer joy they bring. Coupled with some spectacular choreography, a scene where Barnum courts Carlyle involves some magnificent interplay with a barman and some shot glasses, you’ll be humming some of the numbers for days after.
Scratch the surface and you’ll find a few cracks. Some characters aren’t explored in enough detail, a lot of the CG animals are unnecessary, a scene featuring Queen Victoria is just bizarre and trapeze wires defying the laws of physics are a trifle baffling but it all adds to the wonder and spectacle of Barnum’s world and can easily be forgiven.
The Greatest Showman is an absolute triumph and just what the cinema was made for. Do yourselves a favour and watch it as soon as you can.