The Greatest Showman is revisionist drivel. It could have been something better, but apparently director Michael Gracey thought it best to settle. He got an ensemble cast packed with stars, and the greatest demand he placed on them was to phone it in.
The marketing materials for this movie tout it as "featuring the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land." This begs the question: who gives a shit? La La land had its faults but it also had charm to spare, and it wasn't because of its lyrics. I just finished watching The Greatest Showman two hours ago and I couldn't repeat a single line from a single song.
And when that's the description of the best part of a film, the film's got problems. It's somewhat mystifying that Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams should be cast in lead parts in a musical that features several people in much smaller parts, many of them children, who are far better singers than they are. And Michelle Williams is utterly wasted here, as Charity, the wife who left her family riches for poor P.T. Barnum (Jackman), is an actor whose talents are unsurpassed by any other in her generation. You wouldn't know it to see her here, simply being the loving and supportive wife of the guy who invented the circus. You should skip this movie and watch her instead in the stunningly impressive All the Money in the World, in which she actually plays a woman with agency.
I mean, in The Greatest Showman, she's pretty -- that seems to be what she's here for. But everyone in The Greatest Showman is pretty, even Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady. Maybe Zac Efron especially. Okay, maybe not Dog Boy. I don't know who plays him; the guy got no lines -- nor did the vast majority of the human "curiosities" who populate the earliest iteration of Barnum's circus.
It strikes me as telling that the word "freaks" is used very sparingly in this film -- maybe two or three times. Here is a story of exploitation -- of both people and animals -- sanitized to the hilt. Who are they fooling with this shit? Sure, the circus performers do find themselves pushed aside in Barnum's quest to gain acceptance in high society, but the idea of prejudice against the "other" is here simplified to the level of a lesson learned in a children's book. This would include Efron playing a guy who defiantly courts a young black woman (Zendaya), but nothing even close to race is even mentioned anywhere in the dialogue. The story comes within spitting distance of addressing issues obvious to the time period, and never once so much as directly acknowledges them.
Some of the music, at least, is rather nice. None of it is especially memorable, save for the few cast members who can truly sing -- not all of whom are even singing with their own voice. Rebecca Ferguson has the largest supporting part for a character who sings quite a few songs, and he voice was dubbed by Lored Allred.
As P.T. Barnum's enterprises evolve, some of the song sequences feature some nifty choreography. These are the moments with the potential to render The Greatest Showman irresistible in spite of its flaws. Alas, they are fleeting. They remain part of disparate elements impossible to form a cohesive whole. Sometimes, a great voice sings a few lines in a song nice enough almost to become infectious. But the moment passes, and you're left with the time to ponder how this movie lacks the slightest bit of depth.
And then a scene shifts, and you're practically knocked over with cliches. Michelle Williams's scarf flapping in the breeze as she's kissed by Hugh Jackman would work better if there were anything knowing or self-aware about it. But The Greatest Showman wants us to accept it as a straightforward musical entertainment, at times even as an earnest one, but then it seems to think we won't notice when it's being ridiculous. P.T. Barnm coming to meet his family waiting for him at the ballet on one of his elephants? That's just the icing of dumb on a cake of stupid.
I was occasionally entertained enough by The Greatest Showman to forget how dumb it was -- it's a special kind of movie that can make you forget the entire time. This is not that kind of movie.