Tropic Sprockets / The Greatest Showman

By Ian Brockway

P.T. Barnum probably was, granted, one of the great salesmen of American history. But Michael Gracey’s film “The Greatest Showman” hardly reveals any real person underneath the shallow song and dance.

The film is essentially a sanitized Disney version of Barnum’s life, told through song, of the man who was a salesman and father of morally problematic live circuses. Fluff and feel-good generalities are all that we get here and as standard entertainment, it is eye-catching enough: the music is lively and the cinematography is as glossy as a Vanity Fair photo spread. The champagne pops, the acrobats spin, deep red curtains are raised and elephants dance. There are Chang & Eng, Tom Thumb, and a lady with a terrific voice who has a beard. But there is not much else on this platform.

Hugh Jackman plays Barnum (a man who in real life had some offensive traits as a minstrel performer and self-righteous soul). In this incarnation he is a near saint, standing up for wholesome family values and being different. Michelle Williams is Mrs. Chasity Barnum, who is nearly indistinguishable from Elsa’s sister Anna in the animated movie “Frozen.” There is some marital tension when opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) pursues Mr. Barnum, but the pathos for the most part is soon dropped with little lasting effect.

Despite some tension with in-laws, the two have a wonderful life. Barnum manages a palatial house with two adorable daughters. Somehow with very little money, the benevolent huckster manages a thriving business. Imagination is king and all you need is vision.

In one heavy handed scene, a disfigured but cheerful young man hands the poor Barnum boy an apple. Instead of showing us something interesting, the scene plays like a weird interpretation of Snow White. Disney is fine, but if Disney is all there is, everything feels cloying and sickly sweet.

Of course the so called “freaks” are not freaks at all and they march into a society party with a “Born This Way” Lady Gaga-ish song. But it all feels done in a rote manner and not very energetic. We are hit over the head with its positive “Up with People” message. Hugh Jackman is more Dudley Do-Right than Barnum, his smile too straight.

Though the music is rousing, by midpoint the drama and dance feels anemic like a party favor that squeaks instead of sparking. Suffice to say, Jackman does his best. He is the only spirit in this all too predictable show. “The Greatest Showman” is all gloss and glare. Instead of a historical record told in music of an intriguing if troubling man, we get a soupy figure who believe in happiness, which has a rightful place. But when you can set your watch to its emotional tone, it feels less like a film and more like a thirty second commercial, however snappy.

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