In many ways director Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman lives up to its name. From the film’s awing acrobatic stunts and bold dance sequences to the dazzling costuming and catchy music, the film inundates its audience with the power of big-screen storytelling. It’s a show if there ever was one, and at times so visually satisfying you almost forget what’s happening. Therein lies the film’s most memorable and unfortunate achievement: like most great showmen, the film loses much of its magic—and substance—once the story leaves the ring.
A loose re-imagining of the rise of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), The Greatest Showman is a look at the man responsible for the iconic and now ended Barnum & Bailey Circus. Following the businessman and museum proprietor through his early days of young love and financial squalor, Jackman offers audiences an ostensible everyman: desperate to provide for his family and eager to prove himself to the world. Barnum has a knack for sniffing out possibility, and it’s now led him to his latest enterprise: a show featuring thrilling “oddities.”
The film very earnestly attempts to frame Barnum’s entrepreneurial endeavors as one outcast lending a hand to another, instead of the hype man and hustler some have remembered him as. The problem with the film’s approach, if you ignore the actual history, is that it concentrates so much on telling us its lead is both empathetic and downtrodden that it barely takes any time to show he’s either. As a character, Barnum struggles, but always at a comfortable distance from his “circus” stars and even, as we see, the “real” talent. He encourages people to join his troupe not by offering acceptance and haven, but by arguing that if people are already laughing, you might as well get paid while they do it. It’s a particularly uncomfortable notion when most of the story sees the ringleader more consistently and thoroughly written as a victim of unjust social standards than those whose objectification he profits from.
It’s clear from early on that we’re supposed to see Barnum’s work as more than the birth of modern advertisement. His “circus” is also some inspirational effort to shirk others’ devaluations in favor of realizing our intrinsic greatness. The film is pretty heavy handed with this, the theme bubbling up in everything from the romantic storylines to its quippy dialogue. The symbolism of Barnum’s social alienation—as some supposedly equal representation to those in his cast—is also apparent, though not always believable. A sensitive and thoughtful tale of resilience and acceptance is not possible when the person it chooses to focus on is more often than not neither sensitive nor thoughtful.
The Greatest Showman is a tale of opportunism repackaged as idealism, that seems mostly unclear about what it’s selling. In a sequence that sees local “curiosities” line up to audition for Barnum’s show, hirsutism, dwarfism, albinism and even blackness (one of many times the film makes improper and egregious comparisons about marginalized identities) are paraded about and given their obligatory 30 seconds of expository screen-time. These are the people the rest of the world doesn’t want, and so they’re people an economically poor but creatively rich man like Barnum can both understand and help. At the very least by providing a weekly paycheck and at the most a “radical” notion that they are worthy and deserving of love.
Of course, that’s all before Barnum confesses he likes his acts because they’ll bring out the worst in the people that come to see them. It’s a tonally jarring characterization that undermines whatever poetic takeaway we’re supposed to have about a man who scoops up social outsiders from the streets. And as Barnum does it again and again, it becomes a form of subtly accepted demonization that isn’t always adequately addressed, whether its Barnum or the film’s other antagonists, by the writing as wrong. As a result, it’s unclear whether screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are aware (or acknowledging) Barnum’s abuses and moral failings or if it’s a tale so awed by its political intentions that it can’t see how under-developed its messages are.
Barnum’s revelations about his intentional exploitation might be more easily forgiven if the film took more time to humanize the people its showman is profiting from. The cast is large and star-studded, including Jackman, Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity, Zack Efron as his business partner Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. While large ensembles can make developing every character with distinction and fullness challenging, the writing fails to give even the film’s supporting leads much growth beyond its glossy and often shallow conversations about race, economic privilege, disability, and otherness.
Most of this story is so focused on moving through P.T.’s successes and failures while trying to convince us he’s worth rooting for that the other characters end up as chess pieces haphazardly shifted about a plot board. Even a moment where it appears the supporting cast is getting their own nuanced arcs winds up being a narratively unfruitful plot development. The film’s most successful attempts at developing anyone that isn’t Barnum or his daughters comes from Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind, as well as Zendaya’s Anee and Efron’s Phillip. But their plots are so convenient and rushed that it’s hard to feel emotionally satiated. Perhaps much like the real history, when the lights go down, and the crowds go home, the real stars remain an afterthought.
That’s not to say the entire film is dispiriting. Throughout its nearly two hour run, it’s hard not to be won over by its top-notch production quality. The acting from supporting cast members like Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz), Sam Humphrey (Tom Thumb) and Ferguson is engrossing even if it’s not always given its full due. The choreography provides the film with a modern flair that, coupled with a few hip-rolling beats, will deliver some well-earned goosebumps. And while color-coordinating people’s outfits with their skin color is an example of treating characters as props versus people, the costuming is an excellent homage to an enduring era of American culture. Even the editing plays up the way we watch musical theater, offering quick shifting shots that dance from character to character, like our eyes moving between on-stage actors. But much of this film’s greatness is left here, with everything inside the ring.
Like many of the other truths of P.T. Barnum’s circus, The Greatest Showman opts for “feel good” and attention-grabbing over authenticity and earned emotional gravitas. In its ardent effort to write an uplifting tale about a man down on his luck and the transformative power of show business, the film misses exploring the dreams and journeys of people actually under the heel of America’s boot. And perhaps more interestingly, how a man’s million-dollar business venture became an extension of said boot. “People come to my show for the pleasure of being hoodwinked,” Barnum tells us. “Just once I’d like to give them something real.” Unfortunately, through the delivery of a somewhat hollow, rushed and at times insensitive narrative, The Greatest Showman fails to do just that.
Abbey White is a freelance entertainment and identities journalist who has written for USA TODAY Network, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, ScreenSpy and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. She currently lives in New York City where she serves as an editorial intern for The Nation magazine.