If you watched the trailer for this PT Barnum biopic and were startled and confused when Hugh Jackman burst into song, then prepare for greater bafflement. This energetic musical boasts plenty of razzle-dazzle and at least two proper toe-tappers from Pasek and Paul, the voguish songwriters behind La La Land's City of Stars.
Between miasma-ready showtunes, there’s a flimsy, knickerless plot that exists only to jump from one autotune performance and tacky CG backdrop to another. Roughly speaking: PT Barnum (Jackman) dreams of achieving fame and fortune with a circus, then he loses sight of his dream, then he remembers it again. Here come crummy-looking digital elephants. The end.
Musical theatre veteran Jackman gives it socks, despite his underwritten central character. But he and several others seem entirely the wrong age for their roles (although, in real life, to be fair, Barnum didn’t get into the circus business until he was 60). Michelle Williams, hardly synonymous with song and dance, appears to have wandered in from the kind of movie that stars, well, Michelle Williams. Her feeble solo number, “crescendoing” in a sad series of “ooh ooh oohs”, wouldn’t cut it on a talky French disco record. You oohs, you lose.
The normally reliable Rebecca Ferguson, playing Swedish chanteuse Jenny Lind, not only doesn’t sing (Loren Allred does the heavy lifting), she can’t even lip-synch convincingly. And let’s never speak of Gayle Rankin’s Queen Victoria again.
The film's insistence that Barnum's freakshow is born from warm, fuzzy humanity and very contemporary notions of inclusivity is not just historically inaccurate, it's at odds with The Greatest Showman's extremely pretty idea of freakery. Pink hair? Tattoos? Fabulous dancing skills? Those monsters.
For all these issues, there are some properly great things about The Greatest Showman. Ashley Wallen's choreography is incredible. The romantic subplot between Zac Efron and Zendaya is emotionally pleasing in an otherwise pointedly superficial film. The prepossessing couple turns in a marvellous aerial two-step sequence. Best of all, at full stretch, Keala Settle's bearded lady recalls the divine Mabel King.