Every now and again there will come along a film that grabs the cultural zeitgeist by hold, leaving me very confused as to what happened to everyone. The most recent example of this would be The Greatest Showman, a film whose reception has left me positively baffled, with many of my friends talking at length about how much they loved it, as well as a constant stream of people on twitter declaring how they cried through the whole film, leaving me at home very confused because, well the movie I saw, was bad.
The Greatest Showman is the terribly titled musical retelling of P.T. Barnum’s life as a ringleader in the first circus ever. Of course, rather than actually providing an interesting look at the immense scumbag that was Barnum and the even more demented bedlam that was his circus, they instead make a squeaky clean film designed to be as safe as possible in order to sell tickets to as many families as possible. Other than missed potential, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a family film, except for the staggering lengths that this movie goes to not say or do anything of note or of importance. The movie has an underlying theme of acceptance and self-esteem revolving around the circus freaks, but it just winds up coming out absurd in all of its sanitized glory. All of the songs about being yourself come across as aggressively pandering to try and trick you into thinking the film is progressive and draw some manufactured emotion out of you. There’s an extended B Plot about Zendaya feeling persecuted for the color of her skin, but the film is too terrified to offend anyone that it never uses the words “black,” “skin,” or “race,” thereby cheapening whatever message they could have been conveying. Perhaps it is just my cynical core, but when the bearded lady and her cronies sang about they were no longer afraid to be themselves, I just felt offended by the movie’s lackadaisical approach to storytelling. I have no problem with empowered characters, but if previously unempowered characters don’t go through any kind of change or journey to their newfound confidence, it’s not inspiring, it’s manipulative. Of course, this movie will no doubt be praised for its inclusive message, where anyone who looked at it for just an iota deeper than face value could easily see the ridiculous pandering that is present in nearly every song.
Let’s talk about those songs. Of course, music is the one thing that is more subjective than film, but, in my opinion, the music in this film is subjectively bad. It is all ridiculous manufactured poppy explosions that, somewhat remarkably, all sound the same. It’s almost comical how all of the big group numbers sound and feel like the exact same song. It’s one thing to have them all sound like they belong in the same musical, but these songs all start out kind of quiet before building to the exact same place, with the same chorus singing and handclaps in the same place, to make you feel some bizarre deja vu every time the group builds to a musical climax. A notable exception is the duet between Zendaya and Zac Efron that takes place on a trapeze. This song feels different from the others, but is, at its core, just a mundane pop duet that was likely written in the possibility of getting radio play at some point. I think my favorite moment in the film is when Rebecca Ferguson’s character, the internationally renowned opera singer, opens her mouth to sing a silly pop ballad that would have felt at home on a Lady Gaga unplugged album. But, once again, if you really liked the music in this film, more power to you. I just personally felt uninspired by every song in the film.
This film takes a novel approach to characterization and storytelling in that it just doesn’t bother doing either. Rather than giving the characters anything in the actual movie, the film relies on tropes to have you fill in the blanks for yourself. When it rushes through Barnum’s backstory, it shows him as an Oliver-Twist-esque beggar so your brain automatically thinks, oh he was a poor little nothing who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to be as successful as he was today. Even this is one of the only characterizations I can remember in the film. Sitting here, I’m trying desperately to remember anything about Zac Efron’s character other than the fact that he’s in love with Zendaya because she’s attractive, and I really can’t think of anything. All of the actors in this film are great performers in their own right but feel very awkward in their various roles. Sure, they sing pretty, but when it comes to actually acting in the film they all feel very rigid and misplaced. Zendaya is a full ten years younger than Efron and definitely looks it, thereby making their romance a little uncomfortable, as this thirty-year-old man courts a girl who still looks like a teenager. Hugh Jackman smiles a lot. That’s about all he brings to the table. As for the story, we’re given the absolute bare minimum shell. Instead of following a plot, this film is more of an extended montage that will briefly advance the story only to make way for more flashy images and boring songs.
It’s hard to be mean to this movie because it’s just so earnest. A lot of people clearly tried really hard to make this a good film, that is apparent from the lavish sets and musical numbers. But, it’s not my job to give out gold stars for effort, and despite all their efforts, they churned out an incredibly mundane, boring piece of cinema that, while galvanizing at the moment, will be rendered forgotten in a matter of years. There are some things that work, the cinematographer presents some genuinely interesting tableaus, and the choreography is genuinely impressive when the editor lets us see it, but ultimately the movie just falls flat. If you found yourself liking this film, I get it. But, if you, like me, were just utterly confused by the praise its garnered, don’t worry. You are not alone.
All images are from The Greatest Showman, a film by Twentieth Century Fox