The Greatest Showman has all the ingredients for a spectacular, heart warming show: an exhilarating soundtrack co-written by the duo behind the music of La La Land, an inspiring rags-to-riches plotline, the razzle dazzle of big top performance, Hugh Jackman…the list goes on.
And while it is spectacular, as I watched colourful characters belt show tunes about love, diversity, and overcoming adversity, I felt as ready to shrug my shoulders as clap my hands.
The Greatest Showman’s solitary Oscar nomination indicates I might not be the only one who feels this way. That nomination – for Best Original Song – highlights the song that captures the sentiment this movie claims to have at its heart. In reality, the movie spends a disproportionate amount of time developing aspects of the story of its protagonist, circus ringleader P.T. Barnum. For instance, the story begins with a drawn-out montage establishing Barnum’s relationship with his wife from the time they meet as children through to their early marriage. But their relationship could have been just as well established in about half the time, and still create the same effect come the time of conflict (which, in the end, is brief and mild).
On the other hand, Barnum’s relationship with his performers—which is critical for creating an emotional moment when his circus comes crashing down and they are left with only the gathered family they’ve created—is almost completely neglected.
The movie finds itself short on screen time to invest in the social-outcasts-turned-circus-stars. While Barnum is building an entertainment empire from nothing, these characters are learning that they are worth more than nothing. They are the movie’s richest asset: especially amidst Hollywood’s current attention to diversity.
We’re only given bits and pieces of the context of their lives before the circus—nothing nearly as developed as they deserve. As a result, when they sing about strength and overcoming rejection, the sentimentality is forced. When they fight the angry mob of protesters and watch the circus burn to the ground, what should be a devastating moment feels like a mere inconvenience.
Alas, the diversity this movie claims to celebrate does not drive the story the way it could have. These characters are, ironically, in the backdrop of what could have been their story just as much as that of Barnum.
Nevertheless, there was one dynamic that pleasantly surprised me: the relationship between Barnum and his harshest critic, Mr. Bennett.