Movie review: Full-on song and dance in The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman (centre) plays huckster and circus founder P.T. Barnum in the musical The Greatest Showman.
Hugh Jackman (centre) plays huckster and circus founder P.T. Barnum in the musical The Greatest Showman.PHOTO: NIKO TAVERNISE, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

This movie pushes its positive vibes so hard, you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a feature-length public service announcement, one of those put out by the Government to promote some aspect of healthy living.

Despite its wearying tendency to thrust its wholesomeness in one's face every few minutes, there is no denying that this is extremely well-crafted and risk-taking to boot. Perhaps the cheerfulness is insurance against how much of an outlier this movie is.

In the last several years, musicals with original songs have been created for a niche market. Last year's Sing Street and La La Land come to mind and, despite their award wins and acclaim, they have nothing of this movie's desire for all-ages, broad-demographic appeal.

This film is a throwback. It is a musical for people who do not like musicals and makes no concessions for a modern audience, such as by slyly easing its way into its musical sequences (like La La Land). Or, by making songs an organic part of the story, in the style of Sing Street (2016) or Once (2007).

This movie's musical numbers - about 10 in all - are unapologetically stand-alone and splashy, even the ones featuring only couples. In La La Land, for example, the lovers played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone might step lightly around a street lamp or, at most, float about in an observatory while delivering songs in a low-key manner.

In contrast, Barnum (Jackman) and Charity (Williams) go for it full-voiced while dancing full steps on the roof of an apartment building.

Director Michael Gracey, making his feature debut, clearly believes in the Baz Luhrmann "go big or go home" way of thinking. At the end of the show-stopping This Is Me ensemble number, everyone in the ring ends arms outstretched, as if asking for acceptance or, more likely, applause.

  • REVIEW / MUSICAL DRAMA

  • THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (PG)

    105 minutes/Opens tomorrow/3/5 Stars

    The story: In this musical biography inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Barnum's journey begins when he is laid off. In flashback, he is shown to be insecure, desiring to give wife Charity (Michelle Williams) the wealth she enjoyed as a child of a wealthy man, before being disowned for marrying the penniless Barnum.

 

The songs are solid and This Is Me, like all great Top 40 summer tunes, has an anthemic chorus that embeds itself in one's head for days.

But that risk-taking is undermined by compromises the movie is forced to make for blockbuster appeal. The characters of co-host Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and his love interest, the trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), for example, add little to the story.

Ironically, for a movie that so stridently promotes a message of acceptance, it spends too little time with its most interesting characters - the human oddities that gave the circus its claim to fame.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline 'Full-on song and dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe