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For a film about the power of the imagination, The Greatest Showman is remarkably unimaginative. Written by Chicago’s Bill Condon, it turns the life of the father of the modern circus, P.T. Barnum, into a glitzy parable about the courage to follow one’s dreams – in this case, exhibiting social outcasts for profit. Hugh Jackman brings his easy charm and grating vibrato to the lead role, but alongside a surprisingly entertaining Zac Efron, and the wonderful, if underused, Zendaya, the cast uplift a film that, while aiming for razzle-dazzle, falls short on the glitter.

"It is all about Barnum’s rise-and-fall-and-redemption-and-rise tale"

It cannot be denied that The Greatest Showman wants to entertain, and it tries its damn hardest. The pace is plodding, but the beautiful visuals and choreography are dazzling. The lyrics, written by La La Land’s Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, despite being crammed with clichés, bring air-punching choruses that are both affecting and annoyingly catchy.

The plot is certainly formulaic and some of the dialogue hackneyed, but the biggest problem is the gap between narrative and what is actually shown. Barnum, in reality also a philanthropist and politician, is recast as a self-made man trying to give his daughters and wife a better life. He is established as a champion of underdogs, in this case his troupe of “unique individuals” that includes albinos, the diminutive General Tom Thumb, and assorted “oddities”. Learning self-love in the face of disdain and violence, the group unexpectedly becomes the emotional core of the film, Keala Settle a particular delight as the Bearded Lady in the show-stopper ‘This Is Me’. 

Trailer for The Greatest ShowmanYOUTUBE

But for all this, most do not even have names, and the characters supposedly empowered by Barnum prove to be of little importance to the film. Instead, it is all about Barnum’s rise-and-fall-and-redemption-and-rise tale, as he eventually learns to properly appreciate those around him, and not go gallivanting off with Swedish opera singers (Rebecca Ferguson, wooden as a newly varnished shelf).


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When The Greatest Showman bothers to, it tells a compelling tale about the importance of diversity. It is just a pity that more attention is paid to Barnum’s daughter’s ballet lessons. There is a striking scene where Barnum tries to recruit Thumb by suggesting that as people will laugh at him anyway, he might as well be paid for it. He gets a door in the face for his efforts. A throwaway moment amongst the peanut shells and soaring pop ballads, it points to a greater tension in the film, and, indeed, in Barnum’s life. His circus might have felt like they had found a new family, but they were still exploited for the profit of a man who shared none of their disadvantages.

Of course, a family musical film is probably not the best medium for a gritty exposé of human rights abuses in 19th century travelling circuses. Barnum himself would have likely approved of poetic licence to make a good story. A storybook biopic with enough catchy songs to make one believe its own elevating mythos, The Greatest Showman makes for heart-warming and enjoyable, if uninspired, escapism

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