Review: ‘The Greatest Showman’ isn’t the greatest show, but it’s not the worst either.


Nora R, Animation Geek & Musical Freak

Rating: ★★☆☆ (2 stars)

When I set out to rewatch “The Greatest Showman” for this review, I was expecting the worst. After all, when I first saw this movie, I loathed it, so why would this time be any different? Notepad in hand, I grimaced as the telltale thumps of the first song began and Hugh Jackman’s breathy voice whispered in my ear. However, as the film continued, I started to enjoy myself a bit. After reviewing my thoughts on this movie, I am pleasantly surprised to say that while “The Greatest Showman” is nothing to write home about, it’s not the worst movie ever made.

Zendaya stars as Anne Wheeler in ‘The Greatest Showman’ (20th Century Fox)

I want to start by talking about the music. The soundtrack to this movie is gorgeous, with only a few songs I didn’t like. The songs are well-incorporated into the story, and the only times where they felt out of place were during “A Million Dreams” and “From Now On.” I adored “Come Alive” and “This Is Me” for not just their fantastic melodies and lyrics but their intricate dance numbers. Even “Other Side” was a good song, though I found the choreography to be a bit lackluster. I had two main problems with some of the songs, however. First of all, at the beginning of most of his songs, Jackman’s voice seemed very breathy and quiet, which bothered me. I understand that he can’t belt all the time, but his voice ended up sounding like a gruff whisper. Secondly, I’m irritated by the amount of autotune I heard in the songs. I know for a fact that singers like Jackman and co-star Zac Efron have wonderful voices, and the autotune ruined some of the best moments in “Other Side.” Despite all of this, the pros of the music still outweigh the cons by a lot.

Time to discuss one of my less favorite parts of this film: the plot. I don’t feel like explaining the entire plot of the movie; it’s a lot to go over. However, I will say that the majority of the first half of the film is contrived and not worth watching. I found myself disappointed in the horrendous choices that P.T. Barnum (Jackman) was making, and many plot points just didn’t seem to make sense to me. He is dismissed from his job within the first few minutes of the “adult life” part of the movie, with little to no background in what he does, just that he has been fired. Then he opens his “museum” and hired his “freaks.” In my opinion, the entire sequence of him looking for “freaks” is messed up. He exploits Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a dwarf performer, by telling him exactly what he wants to hear. The way he views bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) is obvious from the second he sees her: a way to make money. He makes up fake information about the rest of his employees to make more money, and overall scams his audience. He states that he believes scams are alright as long as the audience is enjoying themselves, but he comes across as a bad role model. Good role models are very important in mainstream movies aimed at children. However, after Barnum hires Phillip Carlyle (Efron), an upperclassman with a passion for the theatre, the plot becomes somewhat more bearable, with the heartbreak of watching Barnum’s employees be thrust into the shadows, and the empathy you feel for Charity Hallett-Barnum (Michelle Williams) as her husband becomes less and less involved in their family’s life. The only real low point of the second act for me was Barnum’s affair with “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), which could have been cut without affecting the story, themes, narratives, and even the quality of this film. Anyway, even though the second act redeems the movie slightly, I can’t bring myself to like the overall plot structure of this movie.

Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind in ‘The Greatest Showman’ (20th Century Fox)

Now that we’ve gotten the plot out of the way, I’m going to dissect what I think is mostly a mixed bag: the characters and the character performances. Our main character P.T. Barnum is my least favorite character in the film. Ellis Rubin, the actor who played young Barnum, was awful. He seemed so emotionless, and his singing voice (provided by Zif Zaifman), which did not match up with his speaking voice at all, was the most autotuned of the voices I heard in the movie. Hugh Jackman saves the character with a (mostly) excellent portrayal of older Barnum. I enjoyed the performances of his wife, Charity, and his daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely). You could practically hear the desperate sadness in Charity’s voice during “Tightrope,” a beautiful song that is often overlooked when the soundtrack is discussed. Efron and Zendaya’s characters were played very well, which I’ll elaborate on later, and the critic character was only annoying most of the time. However, the real stars of this movie were the Barnum’s “freaks.” Keala Settle’s performance as Lettie Lutz was beautifully inspired, and I loved every minute of it. Sam Humphrey as Charles Stratton was an amazing casting choice, and the emotion conveyed through his voice (provided by James Babson) is fabulous. I loved watching the cast in this movie play so perfectly off of each other; the casting directors chose well. Now, to discuss everyone’s favorite couple.

I previously had very negative feelings toward the romantic subplot between Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and Phillip Carlyle, but upon closer examination, It was written fantastically. The first few scenes that feature the two together are incredible in that they utilize the “show, not tell” method of storytelling. For example, in the second scene they share, Wheeler and Carlyle are watching Jenny Lind’s vocal performance. Wheeler is distraught, as Barnum forced her and the other “freaks” to watch from the back seats, as he was embarrassed by them and their status as “low-brow” entertainment. Carlyle holds her hand to try and comfort her, but after noticing that his parents are watching and whispering from seats a few rows away, he quickly lets go. Wheeler notices this and runs away in tears. In a short scene with no dialogue at all, the actors perfectly portray the state of the pair’s romance. This method is utilized for a while, until, sadly, the movie drops it for a more straightforward approach, leading to “Rewrite the Stars.” This song annoys me very much, as it completely rips apart all of the subtleties of Wheeler and Carlyle’s love for each other with the opening line: “You know I want you, it’s not a secret I try to hide.” This shatters the beautiful and heartbreaking relationship that had previously been built up. If they had simply exchanged this song for a much quieter moment, this plot would have improved tenfold. Because of the stark difference between the two halves of this plotline, I’m forced to take a neutral position on this matter.

When questioning whether or not this is a good movie, you might look at my previous points and decide that “The Greatest Showman” is good, if not great. However, the final (and most crucial) piece of this film sours my experience whenever I watch it. This movie is meant to be a biopic of sorts. For those of you who don’t know, the real P.T. Barnum was known for being a scammer and a promoter of hoaxes. As a twenty-five year old, he purchased a blind (and almost completely paralyzed) slave woman named Joice Heth, and paraded her around, saying that she was one hundred and sixty years old and George Washington’s former nurse. He did all this even though slavery was already outlawed in New York. When she died around the age of eighty, he hosted a live autopsy of her body. He charged people to watch a dead woman cut up. That wasn’t his only offense, however. He forced real-life five-year-old Charles Stratton (whom he claimed was eleven), a dwarf, to drink wine and smoke cigars for the public’s amusement. The movie paints him in a completely innocent light, but this man was truly not a good person. If you’re going to teach young children that P.T. Barnum was a “well-meaning family man,” at least give them a glimpse into his true nature. The fact that this movie is even supposed to be based on a true story makes me sick.

Reviewing all of these points, I think I can safely say that “The Greatest Showman” is not as bad as I once thought. The songs are nice, the acting is spot-on, the plot is weak but bearable, and the romantic subplot is at least good for a little while. Now that I think about it, this movie is better the more you think of it as just that: a movie. A source of entertainment. Something to keep you busy for an hour or two. However, if you pay closer attention, everything starts to fall apart. In conclusion, “The Greatest Showman” is nice to look at. Just don’t stare too long, or you’ll wish you never looked in the first place.

PG. Streamable now on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Vudu. Contains thematic elements including a brawl. 106 minutes.