Critics and audiences alike embraced Hugh Jackman’s R-rated finale (we’ll see about that) as the Wolverine character earlier this year in the highly successful Logan, but I have little doubt the star was more excited about the release of his light-as-a-feather biopic musical of Phineas T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman. The X-Men made him a star, a franchise player and no doubt a millionaire many times over, but Jackman’s always wanted to sing and dance his way into your heart, not stab his adamantium claws through it. A longtime stage performer, he lent his star power to the immediately cancelled Viva Laughlin television series—apparently viewers weren’t ready for a Vegas-set musical weekly in 2007—and found Oscar nomination glory belting out Jean Valjean’s songs in Les Miserables. It’s no surprise, then, that he’d gladly jump into this role, a modestly budgeted tale about the birth of the best known circus and its risk taking founder. Whether or not it works probably depends entirely on how open the particular heart in the theater seat is to the musical form itself.
To those who peruse the genre with regularity, there won’t be too many surprises here. A plucky American myth about a poor kid turning his dreams into reality and riches, set to regular breaks into song with lavish attention paid to costume, set, lighting and choreography throughout, The Greatest Showman checks the boxes like clockwork. The music itself reminds one less of Rent or Hamilton than Katy Perry; syrupy inspirational pop that reinforces the easy ideals of belief in oneself, true love, overcoming obstacles, etc. In other words, the music of the musical, sadly, isn’t one of its high points. That said, each sequence is lovingly conceived and shot by special effects coordinator turned director Michael Gracey, and the dance sequences are anywhere from solid to spectacular depending on the given number. The cast isn’t given anything groundbreaking or unpredictable to do, but seem to get caught up in fearless leader Jackman’s clear enthusiasm for the project, so there’s a genuine spring in most everyone’s steps even as we’re moved dutifully through the rise, fall, and of course rise again of the titular character. Every time Barnum is about to turn to complete narcissism, a vibrant new musical sequence or grounding romantic interlude with steadfast wife Charity (Michelle Williams) pops up to remind us that we, too, love this scallywag.
Before I make it sound like The Greatest Showman is barely more than a brightly colored candy wrapper ready to blow away in the wind, it should be mentioned that the film has a bit more to say than white guys in America really can make it after all. As long as you’re not looking for anything approaching a docudrama recounting Barnum’s original “employees” being purchased slaves, or a deeper exploration of the exploitation weaved throughout the whole concept of a freak show, you’ll find some comfort in the script’s earnest attempts to cast the circus entourage as outsiders getting their own shot at fame, glory and perhaps even a measure of equality. Jackman’s Barnum is himself a poor kid at heart running in (and yet always just outside of) wealthy circles, and the class warfare that permeated 1850s America and hasn’t exactly disappeared in 2017 informs large swaths of his character arc. Thus the fizzy charms of a film seemingly based more on sound and spectacle than anything else actually find some social justice underpinnings that, if not exactly creating true gravitas, make The Greatest Showman appear to care about more than just a quick good time.