Happy new year, blog-readers. Here’s hoping for a year full of excellent films that I can rave about, or suitably dire ones that I can rant about. I’m ready to move into my local cinema in preparation for watching all films possible so that I can be knowledgeable for no reason come awards time.
The main problems (as I see them) are these:
- The film can’t quite decide what it wants to be. In the first five minutes, it sets up like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge with an old title card and a very loose sense of time and place. Soon after, it scraps that idea and decided time and place are important and that it wants to be a Broadway/West-end musical (and succeeds admirably – there’s a lot of set-pieces which could work to great effect on stage). Halfway through the film, it changes to be more Disneyfied (notably, this is when Zac Efron shows up, so it might be a High School Musical nod), and then the last act flits between a few different film styles without necessarily committing to any. As a result, it’s difficult to understand the world and what’s of consequence in it.
- The film can’t quite decide what it wants Barnum to be.
Now, this is understandable. The real-life P.T Barnum was a politician, businessman, celebrity and showman, and a master of publicity, scandal and self-promotion. He was involved in lots of projects and schemes, and the main pull seemed to be whatever would bring him money and fame. By that description, he was an earlier version of Donald Trump (in the film, Barnum also has a difficult relationship with the press. Hmm.). The Greatest Showman wants to focus more on Barnum as a family man and dreamer, welcoming the outsiders of society into the family of his circus. But it is hesitant to commit to that, and the film suffers as a result. I found myself wondering: what was the Barnum of the film trying to achieve? Was he trying to make good on his family name? Was he trying to be a good husband and father? Was he trying to be the most famous person he could be? Was he trying to make money? Was he trying to prove himself to the classes above him? This Barnum had no clear raison d’etre and no clear goal, so I was never entirely sure if he had succeeded. It also means that the Barnum that we meet at the start of the film is exactly the same as the one that we see at the end of the film (just older).
For a film called The Greatest Showman, I'm not entirely sure how the Barnum of the film justifies the moniker.
- The film can’t quite decide what it wants to be about.The Greatest Showman sets itself up to be about a lot of things, but explores none of them satisfactorily (partially because of the above two points). On the face of it, it looks like it is supposed to be a film about challenging the expectations and prejudices held against people who were “other” in any way. However, it gives no voice to the circus people (and in a lot of instances, barely gives them a name) and blobs them all together as one amorphous group (Who are they? What are their stories? Even Barnum rejects the circus people in favour of touring with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), but there’s no confrontation, conflict or resolution in this). There are people who are protesting about the circus, but no mention of what they’re actually protesting (so it can’t be challenged). Which means that songs like “This Is Me” which is an emotionally moving protest song loses much of its clout and becomes an amorphous song that could be generically applied to anything.
But equally there’s the potential for this film to be about many different things. For example: this could have been a film about the tension between wanting to be popular (which life with the circus provided) versus wanting to be critically acclaimed (which touring with Jenny Lind provided). This could have been a film about transcending your social class (which was hinted at with the bullying of Barnum’s daughter, or the tensions with Charity’s family). This could have been a film about work life versus family life. This could have been a film about choosing your own family. The framework for all of those stories is evident in The Greatest Showman, but there’s no exploration or development of any of it. In trying to be about everything, it ends up being about nothing.
This is further compounded by the absolute lack of consequence to anything. We learn that Barnum takes out loans, loses money, takes huge financial risks. The entire circus burns down. But we don’t see any cracks in relationships, any wavering in confidence, any querying in decisions. This should all have played as a daring high wire act. It’s not.
Additional thoughts, comments, questions:
- Barnum has two children. One wishes to have ballet slippers and one wishes to marry Santa. Barnum goes out of his way to make sure the ballet shoes happen, and the other child gets to be a tree in a play. I’m not suggesting that there be a Santa storyline, but why give such credence to one and not the other? Or, for the purposes of the film, just have one child?
- What did Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) actually do? I liked him, but I wasn’t sure what his role was.
- Everyone else I know seems to love this film. The person I saw it with agrees with everything I’ve said in this review and still says “yeah, I don’t care though, I love it”. Can someone explain it to me?