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The Greatest Showman

dir. Michael Gracey
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki

La La Land was last year’s Christmas musical triumph for the city dwellers who were actually able to see it in December. It didn’t come here in Bemidji until February or something, since it was one of those “limited” (i.e. major cities) Christmas releases for Oscar consideration that rolled out into less metropolitan territories later. This comparison is important because the producers of this film here reached for the services of La La Land‘s songwriters, a selling point they made sure to emphasize heavily in the trailers.

It’s easy to see why they did it, too, because this movie desperately reeks of pandering to the Academy’s sensibilities. The fact that this movie didn’t have a release like La La Land doesn’t necessarily indicate an acknowledgement that it isn’t very good, but in this case, it might as well be an acknowledgement of defeat. It opened the day before the highly anticipated (and much, much cheaper to make) Pitch Perfect 3, and let’s be honest with ourselves, that movie is likely to steal this one’s thunder from all but the most “highbrow” of musical nerds.

To be honest, I’d think even they would get sick of this bland, sickly sugary confection of fluff and stuff. This review will contain a lot of comparisons to La La Land which some feel might be unfair, but it really isn’t if the producers went out of their way to both borrow that movie’s songwriters and release it around the same time of year.

They picked these elements for a reason, and it’s likely that this movie will get some Academy consideration since it won’t have much of any competition in the musical genre. It might pick up Best Original Song if only because nominating Pitch Perfect 3 might look embarrassing for whatever reason. (Or maybe not, if something as vapid as Shark Tale could nab a Best Animated Feature nomination back in 2005.)

In this installment of “This Ain’t Star Wars!”, I’ll be taking a look at yet another alternative to The Last Jedi, although this one is far less worthy of your time than Jumanji. Still, if one of your family members drags you along to this thing, at least you might be a little more prepared for the mediocrity you’re about to witness.

The Greatest Showman is a hybrid biopic/musical about notorious huckster and entertainment promoter P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman). The most it really commits to being a biopic is by devoting its first 20 minutes to Barnum’s apparently minor struggle to get his circus off the ground, but it glosses over plenty of what must be far more interesting material about him. He brings together a colorful cast of “oddities” and “unique individuals” including a snappy bearded lady (Broadway actress Keala Settle), a sibling trapeze act (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and a dwarf who dresses like Napoleon (Sam Humphrey).

While his business becomes an immediate and controversial success, a particularly persistent art critic and his daughter’s new social circle from ballet school pushes him to seek the help of Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to reach a higher-brow audience. When Carlyle takes him to meet Queen Victoria, he meets Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and funds her first-ever tour of America. In doing so, he takes his focus away from not only his own wife and daughters, but the family he built with his circus. He leaves Carlyle to manage it and he falls in love with Zendaya in the process, although they barely have enough chemistry or screen time together to establish a romance all that decently.

I’ll begin with the good: Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron are well-equipped to sing the material they’re given. This movie was directed by a cinematographer and it shows, because the stage-like qualities are augmented with some beautiful photography. When this movie is in the midst of delivering impressive choreography or showcasing interesting events about P.T. Barnum’s life, it put a smirk on my face. Not a full-blown smile, just a mere smirk. The costume and set design are worth every penny of this movie’s ridiculous budget, even if the nauseating CGI work isn’t.

Now I’ll dive headfirst into the bad… where do I begin? The songs are thankfully all original, but they’re also as generic and bland as a musical can get. The instrumental production on every song sounds like the most boring pop radio-friendly trash that Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5 or [insert any post-Lorde singer here] could churn out in their sleep. Combined with their over-processed vocals, they sound like rejected musical performances from Glee.

Keep in mind that when the Pitch Perfect movies sound like Glee, that’s meant to happen due to the similarity of their premises. This is an $80 million+ musical epic with songcrafting reminiscent of a TV show from the beginning of this decade.

To bring La La Land back into the discussion, that movie knew when to use musical performances in a romanticized, Broadway-esque manner, and when to turn its musical elements into a mere background for dramatic purposes. That was a movie about crushed dreams, failed romances and disappointments, and the musical format itself became an arc over the movie’s tearjerking narrative.

In this movie, there is no arc to its musical formatting, nor is there much struggle or personality to take in. There’s a song of the same intensity for every scenario here, all of which are tied up in a perfect, neat little bow by the film’s closing. That actually could have been this movie’s strength had it chosen to focus on its wild cast of characters and played its camp value up to the nth degree, but it never really stops to give its “oddities” time to breathe. Only Zendaya and the bearded lady are ever given a voice of any significance: Zendaya exists to be Zac Efron’s lower-class love interest and the bearded lady is comic relief every now and then.

There’s a really good movie in The Greatest Showman somewhere, but it isn’t the glossy pile of mediocrity that sits before you. If you want a musical, I’m sure Pitch Perfect 3 will be the better option. (I’ll see soon!) If you want something that isn’t Star Wars with bright, eye-popping colors, you will get it here, but it won’t have much personality or zest to back up its set design. I would’ve liked to see a musical that focused just on Barnum and his bizarre buddies, with no forced romances or focuses on irrelevant information, with campy direction and songs that don’t just sound like they belong on the lower end of the top 40. I don’t recommend what we have here.