THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (9.5 out of 10) Directed by Michael Gracey; Written by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks; Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya and Michelle Williams; Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl; Running time 105 minutes; In wide release December 20.
Movie musicals thrive on spectacle. Sure, there are a few quieter ones out there like Once and The Last Five Years, but they are the exceptions. What would Moulin Rouge be without its highly stylized songs, or Chicago without its razzle dazzle or Les Miserables without its revolution? We’ve come to expect a performance from our musicals that can rival what it’s like seeing them on stage, and The Greatest Showman, a fictional retelling of how P. T. Barnum began his circus, gives us everything we could be hoping for and more.
Barnum (Ziv Zaifman and Hugh Jackman) grew up as the penniless son of a tailor who clothed the elite who looked down on them. He is smitten with the daughter of one of his father’s clients, Charity (Skylar Dunn and Michelle Williams), and vows to do whatever it takes to win her affections. Returning home years later with money he had saved from his railroad job, he marries Charity and they start a family. After being fired, he takes a gamble on an ill-begotten loan to start his very own House of Wonders to wow the public. Except it fails miserably until he stumbles upon a group of outcasts he recruits to start his circus. Sure enough, people flock to his new show to see these performances. Still not happy that he hasn’t grabbed the notice of high society, he convinces playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to work for him to pique their interest. But as Barnum’s ambition grows, so too does the chance that he will lose sight of what is important and forfeit everything he holds dear in his life.
Simply put, this is the greatest movie musical since Moulin Rouge. Everything works here so perfectly that it’s almost mind-blowing. While the plot is barebones and predictable, we’re not here for that. We want singing, dancing and actors pouring their heart and soul into their characters to make them as big and lifelike as possible, and that’s all here in spades.
Jackman, Efron and Zendaya already have their roots in music, so they show up and effortlessly sing and dance like the pros they are. In fact, Rewrite the Stars, a duet between Efron and Zendaya might just be one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year. Who was surprising was Michelle Williams who not only has a great voice but quietly and powerfully delivers one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments in Tightrope by filling it with a sense of loss and emotion I didn’t see coming. It was one of the many moments one could easily hear other people in the audience in tears.
And of course, a musical is only as good as its songs, and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh from their Academy and Tony winning turns in La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, respectively, are giving us some of their finest work. For those not familiar with the Broadway world, they bring a lot of what they’ve learned from the shows they’ve written there and applied those sensibilities to Showman. Expect to see at least one, if not more, of these songs at the Oscars this year, and be fully aware, you’re going to be looping this soundtrack for a long time to come.
If you’ve already seen The Last Jedi, then The Greatest Showman is the movie to take your family to this holiday season. Full of heart, fun and some of the best music anyone has ever heard, it’s truly a sight to behold and one of the most family friendly films made in the last few years. While it’s definitely not portraying Barnum in a historically accurate light, that’s not what it’s trying to do. It’s trying to show us that we need to love and accept each other no matter our differences, and that’s a message that everyone can appreciate and understand.