Review: 'The Greatest Showman' is a disappointing paint-by-numbers musical

Marcus Goh
PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Watch any musical number in “The Greatest Showman” by itself and you’ll find it magnificently executed.

But it’s how they are all strung together that makes the movie feel like an artificial, factory-produced construct, which is where “The Greatest Showman” doesn’t feel so great.

This musical drama is inspired by the life of P. T. Barnum and how the Barnum & Bailey Circus was created. However, it is heavily dramatised and features some fictional characters, so it should not be taken as an accurate biography.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

“The Greatest Showman” is an awkward juxtaposition of enthralling song and dance with a forced and unnatural story.

It’s a mix of beautiful segments and expository-laden scenes, arching between the highs of a fantastic film and the lows of some humdrum story. It’s difficult to accurately place this film, since it’s strangely remarkable and unremarkable at the same time.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

The musical numbers are excellently written and performed, and carry the enthusiasm and joy of, well, circus performers.

“The Greatest Showman” has a bevy of talented singers (or singing voices who stand in for the cast), and this comes through in their song and dance segments.

Their strong, clear voices and well-synchronised dance moves conjure the image of a delightful and magical circus, which is exactly what the movie’s P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) wants.

Thematically speaking, the songs are what convince you of his determination to spread happiness through the circus.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Yet the way the musical segments begin are incredibly disjointed. There’s no audio or visual cue that the characters are about to break into song — they start singing out of nowhere.

The songs are enjoyable, make no mistake. But most musicals will give some indication that a song is about to start, perhaps with the first few notes or the beginning of a dance sequence.

“The Greatest Showman” abruptly cuts to whatever song is supposed to be sung during that scene, which can be fairly jarring when the characters are in the middle of a discussion or a dialogue.

There’s a particularly peculiar instance when the song begins from the characters hammering signs, with the hammering supposed to serve as some strange beat to lead in to the song, but it doesn’t work.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

The film itself feels mechanical and by-the-numbers. You don’t feel that the characters are driving the plot forward. Rather, they’re just reacting to events in the plot.

It’s not a matter of predictability, either, since some of the events are unexpected. Instead, it feels like they shove in obstacles, triumphs, and conflict for the sake of it, rather than to tell an inspiring story of a man who started a circus.

You can almost see a formulaic skeleton behind it all, which detracts from the magic that should be inherent in such a film.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Being formulaic means that there’s no real character arc for P. T. Barnum. He wants something, gets it, then loses it, then gets it back again, just like every other story out there.

He doesn’t quite learn anything from all of it, and neither is there any tension in the conflicts he faces. Part of this is due to the fact that you know the real-life P. T. Barnum did go on to create his circus successfully.

Then again, it also eliminates any sort of empathy you may have for the main character, since he more or less gets everything handed to him on a silver platter.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

The relationships also feel artificial, with Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) having the most contrived one of all.

You barely see them fall in love before their romance is plagued by some inexplicable hang-ups by one of the characters, and it’s all neatly resolved by the time the film ends.

Other relationships are also depicted with equal soullessness, leading you to wonder where the heart of the film is.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

“The Greatest Showman” displays showmanship in its musical numbers, but fails to tell a genuine and inspiring story. In a way, it’s as hollow the in-movie critics say it is, with the exception that the circus eventually finds its meaning, which the film does not.

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

Should you watch “The Greatest Showman” at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch “The Greatest Showman” at weekend movie ticket prices? No.

Score: 3.0/5

Secret ending? No, but the credits have some interesting visuals.

Running time: 105 minutes (1.75 hours)

PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

“The Greatest Showman” is an American musical drama that’s inspired by P. T. Barnum and his founding of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

It is directed by Michael Gracey and written by Jenny Bicks, with an additional screenplay credit for Bill Condon. It stars Hugh Jackman (P. T. Barnum), Zac Efron (Philip Carlyle), Michelle Williams (Charity Barnum), Rebecca Ferguson (Jenny Lind), Zendaya (Anne Wheeler), Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz the bearded lady), and Sam Humphrey (Charles Stratton the dwarf performer). It is rated PG.

“The Greatest Showman” opens in cinemas:
– 28 December, 2017 (Singapore)
– 28 December, 2017 (Malaysia)
– 31 January, 2018 (Philippines)

Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Lion Mums”, “Crimewatch”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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