By Jason Okanlawon
Love it or hate it, The Greatest Showman, a passion project by the inimitable Hugh Jackman, is finally here and it is unapologetic in its zest for life and its earnestness to please. Although based on a screenplay by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks and directed by relative newcomer Michael Gracey, every frame of this gorgeous movie feels like it was lovingly crafted by Jackman himself. The set pieces and the choreography come alive with a vibrant color palette that is not always seen on film which makes the rousing, anthemic and sometimes soul-stirring songs all the more breathtaking in their execution. Jackman’s heart is on full display in this perfect holiday movie and boy, is it a wonder to behold!
Loosely based on the rise of the (in)famous P.T. Barnum of the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus, Hugh Jackman here plays the eponymous Phineas Taylor Barnum. A boy growing up in abject poverty with dreams of a better life and then becoming a man willing to do whatever it takes to achieve those dreams. Jackman shines through a performance that is equally touching, relatable, charismatic and charming, his dialogue bolstered by rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing tunes from the Oscar-winning duo behind the songs from the equally Oscar-winning musical from last year’s La-La-Land. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul prove once again why they are currently Hollywood’s powerhouse, dynamic duo when it comes to Oscar-worthy songwriting. Michelle Williams shows off her singing and dancing abilities here as well, playing the role of Charity Barnum, dutiful and supportive wife to P.T. Barnum, in a role that allows her to be both strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Rebecca Ferguson gives a soul-stirring turn as the real life famous Swedish Opera singer, Jenny Lind. For a movie that features the character of P.T. Barnum in almost every scene, Miss Ferguson effectively steals the show in every frame that she is in, bringing a grace, poise and self-possessed air that few young actresses could have done with the limited screen time that her character had. Zac Efron and Zendaya give great performances here as well in a subplot that though having the potential to derail the whole movie ended up being perfect in its execution and timeless in its subject matter.
Of course, Barnum’s rise to power in show business was not all roses and smooth sailing as him and his merry band of oddballs in the circus are met with oftentimes, unvarnished cruelty and hatred from those who would seek to destroy whatever seems different. Here, the theme song of the movie “This Is Me” comes in with a doggedness that demands to be heard and felt in every note of the singers’ voices. This is by no means a perfect movie, as the CGI in some scenes is underdeveloped which almost feels criminal in a movie as good as this one. It even has its fair share of detractors who have labelled Jackman’s attempt to bring this movie to life as “misguided” or the movie itself as “insipid…artificial…disjointed.”
There is a line in the movie where a theater critic asks Jackman’s character, “Does it not bother you that everything you are selling is fake?” Jackman responds as coolly as he can, “Do the smiles seem fake to you? People come to me because they want to be hoodwinked.” And that, I believe perfectly sums up how well this movie will be received. If you’re someone looking for historical accuracy in a movie about a 19th century figure featuring songs heavily influenced by the 21st century, then this movie may not be for you. But if you are looking for an inspiring, uplifting, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, holiday movie for yourself and the whole family, then this movie delivers all that and more in spades. The Greatest Showman is not just a great movie, it is by and large, Hugh Jackman’s greatest creation.