‘The Greatest Showman’: A starry-eyed rejection of cinematic cynicism

Only an Australian who’s just had his skin cancer removed could end 2017 releasing a film as shamelessly, almost naively, optimistic and clean-cut as The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman has been working on a P.T. Barnum biopic for years, and while this film more closely resembles the whitewashed Greatest Hits supercut they’d play at Barnum’s memorial, it’s certainly a success in planting a firm smile on the face of this weary viewer for its entire duration. The Greatest Showman does not belong in 2017, and its all the better for it.

To direct this inconceivably out-of-touch musical, Jackman recruited his totally inexperienced friend Michael Gracey — veteran of a few music videos and commercials. As a result, it’s hard to tell who’s responsible for the best bits of the film: Gracey, reshoot director James Mangold or the six(!) credited editors, including Whiplash/La La Land’s Tom Cross. Nevertheless, The Greatest Showman is a thrill from start to finish: relentlessly glossy and with a pacing custom-made for people with short attention spans. It’s only 105 minutes, but has a scope of storytelling that allows for nostalgic reprises of early songs. It is, in short, the perfect movie musical. Not to say it’s anywhere in the league of La La Land, which redefined the genre for a generation with a perfect melding of classic and contemporary elements.

God, no. The music of Showman — basically a bunch of catchy Sia songs — is gratingly at odds with the period setting and the *shockingly* dated themes of equality and tolerance: both Jackman and Zac Efron’s characters serve as white male saviours, risking their careers to defend our freaks from literal pitchfork-wielding bigots. A biracial romance between Efron and Zendaya’s young acrobat — providing a stunning airborne number — causes a stir straight out of Gone With The Wind; nothing in Showman seems to underline 2017’s social issues so much as raise eyebrows that we haven’t moved past this particular kind of heroic narrative.

That Efron/Zendaya romance is actually a highlight of the film, allowing the one-time High School Musical sensation to return to his singing and dancing roots, opposite a love interest who actually looks a bit like Vanessa Hudgens. Well, not really, but a HSM fan needs to dream, alright?? There’s another key couple: Jackman’s Barnum and childhood sweetheart-turned-mother of two Charity (Michelle Williams). Williams, Oscar nominated dramatic actress, plays the role the Bechdel Test was designed to prevent, but somehow (and I suspect Williams had a sense of this) it makes sense in the context of this ridiculous film that female characters should be treated this way. The closest we have to a strong independent woman is the Bearded Lady who stars in Barnum’s freakshow and gets to perform “This Is Me”, the film’s biggest anthem. However, the two best songs are Jackman/Efron hoedown “The Other Side” and “A Million Dreams”, the big opener that soundtracks flashbacks to Barnum’s childhood.

Similarly fitting for the tone of this cinematic circus is the total ignorance of Barnum’s well-known animal abuse (a few CGI elephants show up towards the end, otherwise the four-legged are excluded from affairs) and oft-quoted mantra “There’s a sucker born every minute!”. That said, Jackman does try to inject a tiny little bit of depth into this figure of ambition and male pride, as Barnum *almost* cheats on Charity with a beautiful English singer (a poorly-dubbed Rebecca Ferguson) — this is the weakest 10 minutes of the film; one wishes Jackman hadn’t bothered and Ferguson’s character had been cut. Her presence does enable a dwarf to insult Queen Victoria, which did bring me some pleasure.

As you can probably tell from my varied, disjointed comments, The Greatest Showman is in many ways an indefensibly short-sighted effort, but I have to admit my admiration for filmmakers who are completely uninterested in making a statement. Because in every way it makes an effort, it triumphs, and when it ended I would happily have watched it all over again.