Family entertainment only goes so far in this uplifting musical from Hugh Jackman and the songwriters of La La Land.
There's plenty to like and dislike in this swashbuckling musical extravaganza based on the true(ish) story of P.T. Barnum, a man who supposedly turned obscurity into wonder in the face of adversity.
The story itself revolves around Jackman's character, who opens the film with its strongest number, 'The Greatest Show' (imaginative, am I right?) which gives the audience a glimpse at the stars of his show, bearded lady an’ all.
Before getting into the real plot (if you can call it that), we are treated to a mostly successful montage of Barnum as a child, as he grew up on the outskirts of society with forbidden love Charity. Later played by the criminally underused Michelle Williams, Charity is taken away from Barnum, accompanied by 'A Million Dreams' - a song they evidently trusted so much that they let the sequence run around five minutes longer than it should have.
This is then followed by the main course of the film. The story of how Barnum, after being made redundant, decided to hatch a plan to get people to come and see a merry band of so called 'freaks' he put together, perform as they put on a show for the world to see, even if he does 'exaggerate' their apparent deformities slightly to “hoodwink” (his words, not mine) the audience. Ultimately, this is a success and his empire rises, which leads him to Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) supposedly the woman with the “best voice” in Europe who will add another layer to Barnum's success. And this is where the first problem arises. The so-called 'stars' of the show are left undeveloped and cast to the wayside, the bearded lady, the world’s tallest man etc., are moved on to make way for a completely primitive, unnecessary sub-plot about how Barnum lost the trust of his wife once deciding to go on tour with Jenny.
It may sound very Grinch-esque to begin taking pot shots at a film 'fun for the whole family' which it no doubt is at points, especially the musical scenes - the highlight of which being the trapeze piece between Zac Efron and Zendaya's characters (which they performed themselves), as they swing back to their Disney Channel roots. However, it just didn't sit well with me that these characters were swept under the rug in favour of Barnum, who by the end you're glad to see the back of, even if it is with him riding a CGI elephant.
I won't deny the song and dance numbers as a whole are very well crafted, the up-to-date, pop-py chart-type songs will no doubt be playing round some households for weeks to come, and the choreography is slick and works as unbridled entertainment, although I’m not sure how okay I was with watching Wolverine do the criss-cross in red silk, following the harrowing events of Logan. However, you assume that was the aim going in, with supposed tent pole song 'This is Me,' plastered over the trailers in the lead up to release, which is strange considering it's not even the best song in the film.
Other than the music, the film suffers from its lack of connection to, not only the audience, but its characters. It has no idea what its strongest elements are. A simple formulaic story from start to end on the journey of its 'freaks' would've delivered a far more heart-warming spectacle than the slightly egotistical show on offer, and first-time director Michael Gracey could've lent more on rising stars Efron and Zendaya as it's their story that really offers the most emotional content, even if Zendaya is made to portray a slightly ridiculous accent.
As far as the films awards buzz goes due to its release date, the three Golden Globe nominations should be the end of the road for the film, however an original song Oscar nomination could be a possibility, which I’d have no problem with providing it's not for 'This is Me'.
Overall, the film has flaws and pretty big ones at that, but I will not argue that commercially it will be a success, with hit songs and fast entertainment, however, the misuse of its star elements is criminal, as it clings for emotion about as hard as Barnum clinging onto the back of a train during the film’s final act.