When I walked into the theater twenty minutes before a screening of The Greatest Showman, the soundtrack to the film was playing. It was part of a “getting people into the spirit” effort – there was also free popcorn and balloon creations of some kind – but it was a terrible idea. Not because the music was bad, and not even because it was too loud for 10am on a Sunday morning. Playing the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman before the audience can see the movie is a bad idea because even though the music is perfectly fine, the film is a hell of a lot more fun to watch than it is to listen to.
The visual appeal of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that director Michael Gracey’s work seems to be primarily focused on visual effects. But there are a wide array of visuals that go into making this particular show a great one, from brightly colored sets and costumes to top-notch choreography to one particularly cool – and pretty romantic – aerial acrobatics scene. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that people are falling in love while flying through the air with the greatest of ease; it is the circus after all.
The story doesn’t start out at the circus, of course. It starts out when a boy named Phineas Taylor Barnum, son of a tailor, falls in love with a girl named Chastity in an income bracket he can only dream of. Luckily – and stop me if you’ve heard this one – Barnum is a dreamer. Barnum grows up, makes a little money, and he (now played by Hugh Jackman) and Chastity (Michelle Williams) dance delightfully down the streets and on the rooftops to life of love and stifled ambition. Fast forward several years and P.T. is barely eking out a living for his poor but happy family, so when he gets laid off, he gambles big on a new kind of entertainment featuring unusual people. Or, as the less generous call them, “freaks.”
You can probably predict the weightier themes that drift through the film as Barnum creates what will come to be known as his “Circus” – acceptance, loyalty, social constructs of beauty, etc. etc. None of these are explored in any particularly deep or compelling way, but that’s ok. They’re mostly just there to propel the story and give the characters something to sing about. And those songs, which I mentioned before, are fine. In some cases, they’re pretty good, and often they’re very well performed. They’re just not particularly memorable, but that’s fine, too. They’re mostly only there to give the characters something to dance and flip and march defiantly to. And that’s the element of this movie – anything you get to watch and look at – that’s exceptional.
God, this movie is pretty. It’s no surprise when the credits reveal it took a crew of hundreds and hundreds to make it, since every single lipstick shade, bar glass, and ray of light selected for every frame seems to have been meticulously placed to maximize visual delight. The stuff that’s moving is even cooler. I may have gotten tired of just listening to the songs from this movie, but I could watch the cast dance to them over and over, simply because they make it look so effortless and fun.
Speaking of that cast, Michelle Williams, is underutilized, but mostly this group is doing a good job of what they came here to do. More importantly, in bringing in Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle, The Greatest Showman makes one of the slam dunk casting decisions of all time: putting Jackman and Efron in the same movie musical. I wondered more than once while watching if it could be possible that no one had ever cast Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, possibly the two singing-est, dancing-est, charming-est male actors of our time, in the same movie. (“I know Efron wasn’t in Les Miserables, and I really don’t think Jackman was in Hairspray…”)
I was able to make time for that line of thinking while watching The Greatest Showman, because in a season of complex, layered films, this movie is unapologetically shallow. But there’s space for that, too. You’re not going to mistake cotton candy for baked Alaska, after all, but it’s still pretty and fluffy and makes you happy before it melts away.