MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams.
Never judge a musical by its title or its opening number. The Greatest Showman was certainly not P. T. Barnum (Jackman), who was more of a huckster in real life than the man depicted onscreen. The first song is rather underwhelming, featuring a rap from Hugh Jackman, but the music improves as the film goes on.
The film leaves the circus spectacle seen in the opening number, flashing back to the story of Barnum’s life, his romance and marriage to his wife Charity (Williams), his dreams and promises of wonders to their two daughters, and the eventual creation of his Museum of Oddities, a fancy “freak show” in which he brings together a family of society’s misfits, including a little person (Sam Humphrey), a dog boy (Luciano Acuna, Jr.) and a bearded lady (Keala Settle) unapologetically presented as a transgender woman.
Barnum partners with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to develop a circus troupe and they begin to create a real show that is good enough to promote overseas and gain an audience with Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin). Barnum also discovers the noted opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson with the singing voice and contemporary sound of Loren Allred), who he brings back to America for a singing tour. Carlyle falls in love with Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a trapeze artist, and his love song “Rewrite the Stars” is the standout number, beautifully choreographed. Their love story is unapologetically presented as a romance that transcends racial differences.
The film makes for excellent family viewing. The songs undeniably represent current pop music styles, but move the plot along artfully. (If you struggle with anachronisms and are waiting for Jenny Lind to sing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, you’d best look elsewhere.) Things move quickly and there is a lot of action onscreen, so kids should be entertained. Although there is the intimation of Barnum and Lind having a romantic affair, Barnum’s marital vows are honored and he is a faithful husband.
The major message in The Greatest Showman is that everyone is a person of value and you can create a community out of diversity. Good message. However, the film spends no time telling us much about the persons who populate Barnum’s circus, including the trapeze artist’s brother (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is dropped out of the story once Carlyle starts his courtship. If we aren’t going to learn about these folks, aren’t we just viewing them as oddities? One big number of empowerment (the Oscar-nominated song “This is Me”) isn’t enough.
Still, I enjoyed this tuneful musical, willing to overlook the CGI elephants (no actual pachyderms were abused) while munching my popcorn. I did miss the peanuts and lemonade of 1960’s Toby Tyler: or Ten Weeks with the Circus, the gold standard of circus films. Check it out. It has a chimpanzee with a gun. Now that’s entertainment!
Three halos: Entertaining, if somewhat slight in substance, with an overall message of tolerance.
One pitchfork: Mild swearing, mild prejudice, mild drama; quite a bit of alcohol consumption; the circus poster child for family-friendly entertainment.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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