When the entire cast belts out “THIS IS THE GREATEST SHOW” a minute into your movie, the film itself had better live up to it. The Greatest Showman—how shall I put this?—doesn’t. Something feels off right from the beginning, as we see Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum making his way through the space behind the circus bleachers in silhouette, pounding his cane to the rhythm of crashing drums. We’re meant to be thrilled, our appetites instantly whetted, especially since the movie will shortly skip back to the beginning of Barnum’s life and drag us through several scenes of an adorable moppet dreaming big dreams that will someday come true. But it’s like gazing at an elaborate dish that has been smothered in layers of plastic wrap, defrosted and reheated so many times that the flavor and even the shape have started to go.
Even that once impressive mush has its moments. Although they’re more hit and miss than their inevitable EGOT would suggest, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have a knack for generating insidious earworms, and of the nine songs they contribute to The Greatest Showman, a good three are genuinely memorable. (Even better, they’re all bunched together, so when you eventually watch the movie on an airplane—and you will, don’t even try to fight it—you’ll be able to get through the good part even on a short hop.) Pick up when Rebecca Ferguson enters the picture as Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale” whom Barnum booked on her first U.S. concert tour in an attempt to boost his standing among sophisticates, and she belts out “Never Enough,” dubbed by The Voice contestant Loren Allred, who will have to do until Kelly Clarkson gets a hold of the song. Stick with it through “This Is Me,” in which Keala Settle’s bearded lady, Lettie Lutz, leads a march of Barnum’s “freaks” into the cocktail reception where he’s toasting the acquisition of his newfound respectability. And hang in there for “Rewrite the Stars,” a high-flying love duet between Zac Efron’s black-sheep socialite and Zendaya’s aerialist, which climaxes with the two of them singing in harmony as they spin around the edges of the big top.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice that none of those three songs involve the movie’s ostensible star, except as a mute witness. That a musical-theater actor of Hugh Jackman’s caliber chooses to spend his X-Men capital getting big-screen musicals made should be an occasion for joy—more than 20 minutes of it, even. But the greatest show needs a great ringleader, and Jackman doesn’t fill the bill. It’s not for lack of trying. As he spins a perforated shade around a candle and points his children to the patterns the light makes on the sheets hanging from a nearby clothesline, he tells them it’s “a wishing machine,” and the parallel to the invention of cinema, taking place at the same time in other parts of the world, is implicit. The “machine” part you can feel, as first-time director Michael Gracey cuts every dance number into a million pieces and swishes the camera from side to side to emphasize the cast’s movements. (You cast people who can dance—maybe let them dance?) But the wishes stay unanswered, and although Jackman promises us in the opening number that we’ll be able to feel our “sweat soaking through the floor” (ugh), the only perspiration is his. Gracey comes to direction out of visual effects, and instead of sawdust, all you smell is pixels.
The Greatest Showman rings especially hollow in its presentation of Barnum as a big-hearted entertainer who wanted to awaken his audiences to their common bonds, rather than a shrewd businessman repackaging the ostracized as freaks. As his wife, Charity, who gives up a life of ease to bet on his dreams, Michelle Williams has little to do in dialogue or song but beam and promise to follow him “into the great unknown”—the kind of role Emma Thompson neatly filleted as “Please don’t go and do that brave thing.” The pattern holds for Efron’s Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, whose budding romance cuts across class and racial lines: He’s the dreamer, she the one who needs to see past society’s strictures, despite the fact that he could walk free and go back to his inherited wealth at any moment. These men are never wrong, except when they lose faith in themselves.
Still: Singing! Dancing! Elephants! (Not nearly enough elephants.) It’s not the greatest show on Earth, or even at any given multiplex, but it’s endearingly corny in spots, and Pasek and Paul’s music will lodge in your brain and start demanding you pay rent instead. Like Barnum himself, it’s an elegant fraud, nice enough to look at as long as you don’t look too close.
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