The Greatest Showman is a fun movie. It is visually attractive, emotionally stirring and musically wonderful. For us Christians, it even presents a generally clean story of the life of PT Barnum. One of great love and redemption within a harsh and unforgiving society. It is as heartwarming as it is dance moves inducing. I would heartily recommend it to those who enjoy a good musical.
The only caveat with the movie is that the story itself is not true, not even close really. Other than Barnum’s name and general details, Hugh Jackman’s likable but flawed hero bears little resemblance to the man himself. If you can deal with this disparity and take The Greatest Showman for what it is, fiction, then do go and see it.
Hugh Jackman says that he worked to get The Greatest Showman made for 7 years before a studio approved it. After watching, one can understand the struggle. A movie about a long dead circus owner prominently featuring a bearded lady is a hard sell. One that also happens to be a musical had to be near impossible. You just don’t see many movies like this anymore. I was half expecting to see Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire dance into a scene. Yet, the story worked and I was surprised how well. For a sense of the spirit behind the movie, watch this clip. I enjoy watching people who love what they do and are great at it enjoy themselves performing.
The movie begins with the spectacle of Barnum in all his glory as the ringmaster of his circus. Complete with his bright coat, exotic animals and people flipping through the air, it is immediately attention-grabbing. It then flashes back to his days as an impoverished child working with his tailor father. He seems embarrassed by his tattered clothing as he accompanies his father to the house of a very rich client. While there, he manages to attract the attention of the young daughter of the client, Charity, with some simple theatrics that distracts attention from his poverty and discomfort. This elicits a harsh and unpleasant reaction from the dad. After a confrontation between the father and young Barnum, Charity and Barnum sing one of the first of the musical numbers of the movie wherein he expresses his dreams for a big bright future together. These early scenes set the plot lines for this rags to riches movie.
Barnum is the dreamer outcast who throughout the movie is fighting to gain respectability for himself and his family in the eyes of society. His view on life is filled with an infectious hope that changes all those around him. Yet, personally, though he lifts others up he cannot get past the pain of rejection from his youth. He is inspiring others while somewhat self-destructive as he chases the wind as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it. In order to reach his dreams, Barnum is not above outright lying and subtle deception.
The main storyline kicks off with Barnum and Charity happy but living humbly in New York City. She is content with the life they have along with two daughters but Barnum is always dreaming of more. When he is fired from his job as a clerk at a shipping house after all of their ships sink in a storm, he uses the deeds for those sunken ships to finance a loan to open his first show – Barnum’s American Museum. When this showroom of wax figures and curiosities fails to gain attention, he then enlists the aid of a group of living oddities to help him attract attention. From the bearded lady to a Tom Thumb character to an acrobatics display, we see Barnum recruit those that society rejects in order to form the core of a new show.
It is here that an interesting thing occurs. Though it is clear that Barnum is using these folks to some degree and will say anything to get them to participate, he also appears to actually care for them. He enjoys giving them purpose. In one scene, he scrambles to come up with a reason why they should join the show and display themselves for others to gawk at but then seems to actually believe it. Perhaps it is as a result of Jackman’s general likability and charisma as an actor, but Barnum comes across as a bit of good guy even as he seems to be less so. He knows that he is presenting tall tales and outright lies but so does the public. Both sides enjoy escaping real life for a short period of time through the alternative world presented. He is a noble and lovable scoundrel. If you think about it, this is probably true of many people. King David has moments of great triumph and faith as well as times of great moral failure and deep sin.
The result of Barnum’s efforts is a group of outcasts redeemed and united by the confidence of Barnum performing before what becomes an enthusiastic crowd. The show that makes Barnum The Greatest Showman is born.
A number of conflicts then arise that then seek to derail this core identity. Barnum enlists a famous singer to tour the country and establish his respectability and the temptation to leave what makes him great, his family and his showman personality are strong. A theater critic is critical of the show and the show is protested for contributing to the decline of society. The protesters may have a point. Secondary plot lines are also set in this same general theme. A budding romance between Zac Efron’s Carlyle and Zendaya’s Anne the Trapeze Artist is threatened by the reaction of his racist parents. Will he or won’t he accept his identity as part of the group that was not just not meant to fit in. The tension builds up as the plot lies play out, but never so much to detract from the generally light mood of the movie. It is supposed to be fun so even the conflicts get resolved relatively quickly and painlessly.
These plots are played out alongside and through the real stars of the movie, the music, and the dancing. Much like with the fictional show depicted, from the very first scene you are drawn into a colorful world of song, dance, and curiosity. The costumes are brightly colored and unusual. The music is catchy and emotional. The musical numbers are powerful and expressive. The movie would have been enjoyable simply based on the music. Each of us who saw it have been running a constant Greatest Showman soundtrack in our heads since the movie ended.
A few cautions. The movie is far from perfect. If you are interested in historical accuracy, you may want to skip it. The life of Barnum seems way more sordid, possibly villainous and less hopeful than the movie. The Greatest Showman seems more ironically truthful about show business than anything else. Barnum seems to be a pretty bad guy who did some bad things whose life gets cleaned up and presented as wonderfully hopeful. Jenny Lind, a character who is presented in a somewhat unflattering light appears to have been a very moral person with a heart for charity.
There is also content that is questionable. There is some language, suggestive clothing, and drinking in the movie. Barnum is also presented as something of a good-hearted con artist, something that makes very little sense in life.
That said, the overall message was a good one, the movie itself was enjoyable and it even provided good discussion points for our family. I highly recommend it even in light of the cautions.