A few great performances and a good soundtrack ultimately can’t save this bland musical from mediocrity, but at least they tried.
Telling the “true” story of famous (infamous?) showman P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, as he creates his world-famous circus with the help of his wife (Michelle Williams) and a business partner played by Zac Efron.
From the outside, ‘The Greatest Showman’ seemed like a great idea. Pairing up the lyricists that made ‘La La Land’ so successful, with a true story, and acclaimed actors must’ve made the producers feel as if they had a winner on their hands.
However, there was something that seemed wrong from the get-go, and that was that first-time director Michael Gracey, originally a visual effects artist, was hired to helm the big-budget project. While that didn’t necessarily mean the film was doomed, it was certainly a cause for concern. And just as I thought, that ultimately is the biggest problem with the movie.
The directing is boring, with Gracey opting to never do anything interesting with the camera, leaving it static during sequences where the visuals could’ve flourished a lot more. He also makes a lot of scenes seem cheap, almost looking like a TV movie and not an 84 million budgeted musical blockbuster. While I have a suspicion that he was maybe trying to make you feel as if you were watching a live musical in a theatre, the film never executes that well either (an example where it did work was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina).
In the end it all just becomes a mess visually, and combine that with horrendous CGI in several scenes and lazy editing, and I would be surprised if Gracey is ever given an opportunity so big to direct again, especially considering that extensive reshoots had to be done in post-production to fix it (although, if this is supposed to be the fixed version, I can only imagine the original trainwreck).
What ultimately saves the film from disaster, as I stated in the beginning, are the performances and the songs. Hugh Jackman proves to be an incredible actor once again, this time showcasing his amazing singing talent and charisma to bring a lot of depth and enjoyment to his character. Michelle Williams is great, as always, and Zac Efron and Zendaya were both good, thanks also to their talent in musical theatre.
The soundtrack, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is for the most part very catchy and well-made, with highlights for me being “This is Me” and “The Greatest Show”. However, I really hated the choice to make modern music for the time-period the film takes place on. While it must have sounded like an inspired choice during development, it never really works, especially in scenes involving Rebecca Ferguson’s character singing on a theater. It makes the scene very silly in what is supposed to be taken seriously.
While the first act is mediocre, the second act does pick-up some steam and gets better. The story becomes more interesting and the best songs are featured in this act. However, just as I thought it was beginning to be good, the horrible third act began.
The pacing is completely off, being super rushed in some parts and slow in others. Character development is dropped for musical numbers, and at the end makes you not feel for the characters. Zendaya and Zac Efron’s storyline, which was one of the most interesting aspects of the film, is quickly dropped and not nearly given enough screen time.
Without spoilers, the film takes extremely convenient directions with the story just for certain beats to come-up later in the film, which makes it feel really tacked-on and melodramatic. Even a random action-sequence is featured that feels like a completely different movie.
In the end, thanks to great performances, especially from Hugh Jackman and great songs, ‘The Greatest Showman’ doesn’t end up being complete garbage. If you’re a fan of all musicals, you’ll probably like this, but if you’re someone looking for something more than a soulless cash-grab with lackluster direction, a bad script, weird story choices, uneven tone, pacing issues, and cringe-inducing moments, you’re better off skipping this one.