Hollywood has a problem–a musical problem. There are so many talented actors and actresses out there that can carry a tune and dance up a storm that, logically, we should be seeing a steady stream of such extravaganzas at our local Cineplex. Every year, Broadway crowns a new crowd-pleaser and films that bother to insert a fantasy sequence of crooning and/or hoofing into their narrative usually end up putting a big fat grin on the audience’s face. We miss the spectacle. We miss the escapism. And considering the talent pool, we miss the opportunity to see stars like Hugh Jackman strutting his stuff like he did onstage (yes, Wolverine has a Tony Award).
So why The Greatest Showman? Last time anyone checked, Jim Dale did a dandy job bringing this kind of material to life when 1980’s Barnum hit the Great White Way (it lost for Best Musical to Evita that year, by the way). Sure, the story of the man responsible for turning the surreal concept of a circus into the turn of the century equivalent of a Star Wars film created a legitimate cultural phenomenon with his animals and acrobats, one that changed the face of modern entertainment. So why make that intriguing story into a sappy set of music videos? Was there no one around to come up with a decent story?
Jackman is Barnum, top hat and tails at the ready. As a boy, he had a harsh childhood. As he ages, he takes up with Charity (Michelle Williams) the daughter of a rich businessman. Tired of scrounging for work, he decides to open up a “museum of grotesqueries” in the heart of Manhattan. With his noted sentiment of a “sucker born every minute” and using the bad press to his advantage, he becomes a success. Along the way, he schools a playwright (Zac Efron) in the ways of ballyhoo, even as the novice pursues a trapeze artist (Zendaya). There are hints of other subplots, but it’s clear that most of this material was left on the cutting room floor.
What The Greatest Showman leaves us with then is a bunch of brand new, unknown showtunes. Crafted by Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), they have a snap and a pop, but they don’t crackle. The lack of familiarity makes it difficult to get lost in the tunes, since our brains are just getting used to their sound and meter. Unlike a something like Mary Poppins, where the songs are instantly accessible and have since gone on to become beloved classics, few will be humming The Greatest Showman‘s numbers as they exit the theater.
And then there’s the schizophrenic approach, which often swings wildly from big budget spectacle to attempted character drama. Unfortunately, the two don’t gel, the former sometimes falls flat and the latter is lost in jumbled editing and poor writing. We don’t get character here. We get cardboard cutouts that can be moved inside the elaborate stages and made to look like entertainment. The dialogue does nothing but set us up for the next innocuous number, and when all is said and done, we learn about as much about Barnum the man and entrepreneur as we do about the sudden public appetite for his three ring side show.
Once again, The Greatest Showman highlights that Hollywood has no idea how to handle the musical genre. Instead of going with the tried and true, putting contemporary names into song and dance classics, they drum up something new and it fails miserably. This is not a bad movie, just a frustrating one. We want more than a good looking guy who can sing. Sadly, that’s all this film has to offer.