‘The Greatest Showman’ would make P.T. Barnum proud—and that’s not a good thing


(courtesy of ‘the greatest showman’ facebook page)

By Rachel Walman, Collegian Correspondent

I did not walk into “The Greatest Showman” intending to dislike it. It’s very rare and rather exciting for a movie musical to feature well-known and successful actors, especially with an original premise and songs. “The Greatest Showman,” however, also features quite disjointed plot lines, over-extended scenes (“A Million Dreams” is an 11-minute song!) and pretty shallow characters.

A “charming” man starts a circus. If you’re not really hyped to see that—especially considering that, in real life, this particular man’s career ended in financial ruin and public disgrace—this movie is not for you. I don’t really know who it was made for. I forgot many aspects of the movie I had just seen once I left the theater, in the way the human mind pushes out the memories of traumatic events.

(graphic by Amanda Lorenzo)

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) appears as a delightful, humble, loving husband and father, simply wanting to provide a better life for his family and fulfill his childhood fantasy of living in a large home. I guess I could buy that. But why is this movie about P.T. Barnum? Given what we know about his life and his company, why would this movie exist?

It’s unfair to airbrush and remove large, problematic portions of this man’s life to triumph individualism and “the American Dream.” He’s not a kind and charming man who saw an opportunity to do good and profit from it simultaneously; he was a con-man, a swindler, and exploited those with physical deformities to perform for jeering and gawking crowds.

The songs, while original, feel like they are written to be playable on the radio; there’s nothing special about them that fits in the movie. They’re too anachronistic. They jump between feeling as though they are in fact actually moving the story along and oddly intercut in scenes that don’t necessitate a song (see: “The Other Side,” “Rewrite the Stars,” and “Tightrope”).

I suppose this all relates to the scenes within the movie itself being diegetic or non-diegetic, “taking place within the realm of the movie itself” or not. In most musicals, the song numbers themselves are non-diegetic, meaning that they are more symbolic, for the audience rather than taking place in-universe.

Unfortunately, the songs in “The Greatest Showman” jump between these two concepts, with numbers like “Never Enough” taking place completely in-universe while numbers such as “Come Alive” are more representational of an actual circus show. The back-and-forth between these two narrative styles makes for aimless misdirection.

The themes of the songs are generic and overdone, without a central theme to fall back on. “The Greatest Show” is a Fall Out Boy-sounding pop rock number. “This is Me” is early 2010s pop. “From Now On” is again, early 2010s folk rock. Like the aforementioned plot lines and diegetic choices, the music style itself has no coherent flow and thus makes for an overall confusing experience. They all feel like that one, great, last inspirational song to usher you out the theater door in high spirits; combined, they’re too overwhelming to stick or make a point.

If the plan was to make a movie that champions differences and celebrates individuals’ uniqueness, it is confusing to me why the main character of said movie—someone you’re supposed to root for and sympathize with—uses and abuses the aforementioned individuals. Barnum, at one point, shuts his performers out of a party he’s having with the upper-class members of New York society, never makes up with them, and the next time they meet, they make up with Barnum pretty quickly and easily.

I hesitate to call Barnum’s group of circus performers “the freaks,” even while Barnum himself refers to them as “strange” and “savage.” Barnum tells General Tom Thumb that “if you join my freak show circus, no one will laugh! They’ll salute and cheer!” Zendaya’s character’s problem is that she is a woman of color who might have the hots for Zac Efron’s poorly developed white show producer, whose name I already forgot. The group of performers will arbitrarily move between “don’t look at me, I’m hideous” and “I’m proud of who I am, I love myself” depending on the song that is called for, or when the audience needs some uplifting.

Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the famous Swedish opera singer, is the second most confusing aspect of this story. I understand narratively why she appears—however, the handling of her character is so poor, and I wish they had fictitiously come up with a different reason why Barnum’s wife separated from him.

Unlike Barnum, in real life, Lind was a philanthropist and left Barnum’s tour on amicable terms, uncomfortable with how much he commercialized her performances. In the movie, when Barnum meets Lind, he flirts with her somewhat harmlessly (he’s just too charismatic, damn it), and she leaves him with a public shame-inducing revenge kiss. Poor P.T. Barnum.

Stranger still—we’re going back to the music here—when Lind, a famous opera singer, sings at Barnum’s special performance, the song is a sort of pop ballad, really out of place for the scene we’re seeing, about generic wishing and wanting more from life. There’s nothing unique or interesting about the scene either. The movie stops cold and treats us to four minutes of a woman—who we just met—singing a song that sounds no different than any of the ones we’ve heard so far.

Honestly, I can’t fault the film for being passionate and ambitious. The actors and crew who put their time and effort into this movie gave it their all. The overall message of the movie, which I find to be a bland and uninspired one anyway, seems a bit lost in the uncomfortable reality that this film insists on ignoring. I hope that most of the people who see this movie know how truly removed from reality the story truly is.

Barnum himself, however, surely would have been giddy as a kid in a candy store at this adaptation of his life. As he once unabashedly wrote about himself: “my prime object has been to put money in my purse.”

Rachel Walman can be reached at [email protected].