If “La La Land” was a modern tribute and love letter to vintage Hollywood movie musicals, then “The Greatest Showman” (20th Century Fox), with songs by Oscar-winning “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is an unabashed and unwatchable homage to the faux musicals of Baz Luhrman. If any good comes of this fiasco, perhaps it will be a rush to bring cinematic versions of movie-worthy Broadway musicals such as “Kinky Boots”, “The Secret Garden” and “Hamilton” (and countless others) into production.
Opening with a big splashy center-ring number, a theme that is repeated throughout ad nauseum, “The Greatest Showman” makes it clear via choreography and musical arrangements that it isn’t a traditional period musical. The scene dissolves into a memory of young P.T. Barnum (Ellis Rubin), with holes in his shoes and dirt on his shirt, assisting his struggling tailor father at the New York mansion of Mr. Hallett (Fredric Lehne). While there, the boy becomes smitten with Hallett’s daughter Charity (Skylar Dunn), who shares his feelings.
He is instructed to steer clear of her and, of course, he doesn’t do as he’s told. Years later, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (an uncomfortable Michelle Williams) marry in spite of her parents’ disapproval. They have two daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). Barnum strives to provide for his family, worried that he will not be able to give them a suitable life.
But Barnum’s fascination with the odd and unusual leads him to apply for a bank loan (under fraudulent circumstances) so that he may open a museum of oddities, setting the stage for his later inclusion of live animals, humans and sundry other forms of mass entertainment. Hence the birth of the modern circus; which, coincidentally, is presently ceasing to exist.
An introduction to gentry such as Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) opens new and exciting doors for Barnum. As is to be expected, all sorts of conflicts arise, including violent protests from New York’s finest lowlife thugs, Carlyle’s attraction to African-American trapeze artist Ann (Zendaya) and the threat that opera singer Jennie Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) poses to Barnum’s marriage.
This is not the first time Barnum’s story has been told onscreen (he’s been portrayed by Wallace Beery, Burt Lancaster and Beau Bridges, among others) or in a musical (a 1980 Broadway show starred Jim Dale as Barnum and Glenn Close as Charity). It is, however, probably the worst. The show must go on, but must it go on in this badly? “The Greatest Showman” marks the feature film debut from Aussie director Michael Gracey who appears intent on following in landsman Luhrman’s footsteps, but he stumbles and falls from a great height. The disappointing songs tend towards being repetitive, generic and forgettable. The CGI animals are nothing less than cheap and terrible. Rating: D