The Greatest Showman, based on the life of huckster extraordinaire P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), is a lot like the famous three-ring circus he created. It's awash in ohh and aah spectacle -- see Zendaya and Zac Efron soar high above the arena floor, swinging on a perilously thin rope while belting out a power love ballad! -- but short on character development and good old-fashioned storytelling. First-time feature director Michael Gracey continually zips from one glitzy visual and high-energy musical number to the next (the movie is an eye-popping extravaganza), but a subtler approach would have been more effective at enriching the story and adding depth to a host of mostly marginalized characters.
The film hits many of the major points -- albeit in highly fictionalized fashion -- of Barnum's early career, such as starting a museum in New York City filled with "unique persons and curiosities" (they include a bearded lady, a "dog boy" who looks like a human Chewbacca, a fat man, a tall man, a dwarf, and a mixed-race trapeze artist). Also included are a trip to England to visit Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) in order to raise Barnum's credibility with high-society folks, and an alluring relationship with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), which threatens not only the brash impresario's involvement with his fledgling circus but also his longtime marriage to his childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams). But all of these stories are painted with broad, shallow strokes, and the songs that accompany them (written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land and +Dear Evan Hansen fame) are mostly serviceable rather than memorable. The exception is "Never Enough," an Adele-like pop ballad sung by Lind in her American concert debut, with Ferguson's vocals dubbed by The Voice's Loren Allred. It's a rousing, honest-to-goodness showstopper that's almost -- almost -- worth the price of admission by itself.
The Greatest Showman's greatest asset is its up-for-anything cast, including Jackman and Efron -- both no strangers to movie musicals. They are energetic and charismatic, and fine hoofers to boot, but they, like the film's other denizens, are done in by a script that is thicker with atmosphere than with plot or character development. As for the movie's "freaks," Barnum tells them, "No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else." He gives them dignity and a home, but also puts them on parade to make a buck. Ultimately, however, they prove to be no more than a curious singing-and-dancing sideshow, with Zendaya's Anne Wheeler being somewhat of an exception: She's at least given a backstage romance with Barnum's partner Phillip Carlyle (Efron).
Original movie musicals are few and far between, which makes a misfire like The Greatest Showman most unfortunate. All of the performers look like they're having a blast, but their enthusiasm, sadly, doesn't translate to the other side of the screen. The Greatest Showman is a movie that was, apparently, a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.