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19th of January 2018


Story occupies a distant second place to spectacle in The Greatest Showman

“The public is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and oft times perverse.” That was P.T. Barnum, and he might well have been musing upon the likely fortunes of The Greatest Showman, the latest public amusement to focus on the genial purveyor of hokum.

Studded with merry melodies, curiosities and enough rhinestones to blind Glen Campbell, the film bends over backwards (among other tricks) to endear itself to audiences. The real Barnum may have been a hoax-monger who once took a five-year-old dwarf and put him in his freak show as the cigar-smoking “General Tom Thumb,” but you’ll find little of that in this sanitized story.

This Barnum (Hugh Jackman, having a ball) hires an already adult Tom, and makes an impassioned speech – backed by a song, of course – that Barnum’s American Museum is the place where the little people, bearded ladies and other misfits of the world can finally get the respect they deserve. Oh, and he knocks back whisky like the raucous scoundrel he is.

His rapscallionary begins in youth, when a prologue delivers to him the old stay-away-from-my-daughter trope. Little Phineas Taylor Barnum (Ellis Rubin) ignores that advice, and Jean Valjeans his way into adulthood, eventually marrying his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams). He gets a job as a clerk for a shipping firm, but strikes into show business when that employer goes bankrupt.

From there, the story motors along through the up-and-down beats we expect of a musical. (I swear, every song from Justin Paul and Benj Pasek of La La Land fame comes in two versions; fast for happy times, and slowed down for when things are not going well.) Barnum collects his human menagerie, spars with a critic (Paul Sparks) and gets a business partner – Zac Efron, playing a 19th-century impresario with a 21st-century haircut.

Zac Efron and Zendaya. Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox via AP

Efron’s character is a fictional creation of writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, as is his love affair with a trapeze artist played by singer/actress Zendaya; apparently, Barnum’s real-life circle was too boring for the movies, and needed to be spiced up with some invented characters. This is especially odd when you notice that some historical figures like Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, are relegated to non-speaking, background roles.

Rebecca Ferguson plays a real character in Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” whom Barnum brought to America to sing for his supper. And a meeting with a mightily amused Queen Victoria really took place, though I’m not sure there was a years-long mob of protestors outside Barnum’s museum.

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But The Greatest Showman isn’t a historical biopic. It’s a musical through and through, and if that requires inexplicable mood swings from Barnum himself, or jet-age jump cuts from New York to London and back again, then so be it. Story occupies a distant second place to spectacle, and I’m sure the real Barnum wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“The show business has all phases and grades of dignity,” Barnum once said, “from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.” Not sure if first-time director Michael Gracey will get that much fame out of The Greatest Showman, but this cheeky monkey makes for some fun, light entertainment.

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