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The success of last year’s La La Land opened the door to a possible modern-day movie musical renaissance, and The Greatest Showman may just keep the song-and-dance momentum going for a little while longer.
Hugh Jackman plays real-life entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, a poor office worker who dreams of making people laugh and giving his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), a better life. When the company he’s working for goes bankrupt, Barnum decides to do a complete career 180 by hiring the oddest and most talented performers he can find, throwing them in front of an audience, and becoming their ringleader. Those performers include bearded lady Lettie Lutz, (Hawaiian actor Keala Settle, who steals every scene she’s in) an extremely tall man who Barnum dubs the “Irish Giant,” and trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya).
Barnum realizes his circus will never be more than a passing fad unless he finds a way to appeal to the “high-brows,” so he recruits acclaimed playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron, who proves that he’s still got a little bit of Link Larkin left in him) and famed opera singer Jenny Lind (The Girl on the Train’s Rebecca Ferguson). Unfortunately, Barnum’s success eventually threatens to destroy his marriage and make him lose sight of why he founded the circus in the first place.
But not to worry—this is a movie musical, so Barnum and co. inevitably get their priorities straight and come together through the power of song.
Eleven songs, to be exact, most of which surprisingly fit right in with contemporary self-acceptance anthems like Sara Bareilles “Brave” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” (particularly the triumphant “This Is Me” and the aspirational “From Now On”). Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (aka the scribes responsible for La La Land’s infectious soundtrack) clearly wanted Showman to sound more 2017 than 1850—an interesting approach that’s reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s polarizing hip hop-heavy score. But unlike Gatsby, Showman’s songs will likely pull viewers in rather than push them away.
For the most part, Barnum’s slow but sure descent into jerkdom is intriguing and makes his eventual return to sanity all the more satisfying. But that doesn’t change the fact that the self-proclaimed Greatest Showman is, at times, just plain unsympathetic. It’s a lot easier to care about what happens to Lettie and the other circus misfits than about what happens to a man who dares play with Michelle Williams’ feelings. Plus, you can’t not be invested in Phillip and Anne’s romance.
The two have serious chemistry despite their considerable age difference (Efron is 30 and Zendaya is 21), and Zendaya pulls off an understated romantic moment that could have been super sappy but ends up being just the right amount of sweet. We just wish the writers could have given them a little more backstory—Phillip basically falls in love with Anne at first sight, but what else do the two of them have in common (other than the fact that they’re both ridiculously good-looking)?
Unlike La La Land, The Greatest Showman probably won’t be an awards juggernaut. But that doesn’t change the fact that it has everything you could ever want in a movie musical—catchy songs, amazing set pieces, a strong message, and a whole lot of heart.
The Greatest Showman swings into theatres today. Check out the trailer below.