The Greatest Showman (Gracey, 2017)

I might have enjoyed a different version of The Greatest Showman. One where the filmmaking was more adept, the songs more substantial, and the characters given the complexity they deserve. This? This is pap. Well-intentioned pap, but pap nonetheless. It takes an origin story that, in other hands, would make an interesting film, and strips it of its nuances so that the lacquered shell is all that’s left. P.T. Barnum, a guy whose legacy has not really held up, is portrayed here as a man full of wide-eyed wonder and imagination, who hires a group of disabled/unique individuals out of the kindness of his heart and a belief in equality (?!). He treats them terribly once in the film, and after they immediately sing a self-empowerment anthem, they go back to liking (or tolerating?) him after he loses his museum to a fire because they no longer have a home. Zac Efron and Zendaya play fictional characters who seem to exist here solely to fall in love, sing a duet, and promote the beauty of interracial relationships (which is a fine sentiment to endorse, sure, but it frustratingly never transcends the B-story writing). Michelle Williams was paid mostly for earnest reaction shots, because of course Barnum’s wife is your typical supportive angel! Oh, and don’t get me started on the fact that only three members of Barnum’s troupe are allowed lines and personalities, while the rest are stuck in the background.

Bless the actors for selling this as much as they do, because I sure as heck wouldn’t know what else to praise. Michael Gracey was hopelessly out of his depth handling this project; almost every creative decision made is thuddingly literal, to the point where you feel your brain shutting down because there’s virtually nothing to think about while watching this. The musical numbers strive to be imaginative in their staging, and maybe only one (“The Other Side”) actually succeeds. The music is largely generic lyrically and structurally, relying on thumping choruses or vocal gymnastics… yet very few songs ended up staying in my mind, because there’s nothing remarkable about the lot of them. Meanwhile, the sugary cinematography does nothing to give the film some class, instead highlighting how overdone the final product actually is.

Look, I appreciate the sentiments. Dreaming big, nurturing your imagination, and accepting people for their humanity rather than their physical appearance are things we should all do. But plastering them onto a subject as anachronistic to our time as an exploitative circus and its self-serving owner without trying to grapple with the problems inherent in this approach? It rings hollow, and naturally leads to something hollow.