“The Greatest Showman” is a good old-fashioned cornball PG musical that is also a scintillatingly flashy — and woke! — immersion in up-to-the-minute razzmatazz. It takes the life of P.T. Barnum, the anything-goes circus impresario of the 1800s, who is played with irresistible effervescence by Hugh Jackman, and turns him into a saintly huckster-maestro who invented the spirit of modern showbiz by daring to follow his dream. At the same time, the film takes Barnum’s infamous believe-it-or-not attractions — Tom Thumb, Dog Boy, Tattoo Man, the Bearded Lady — and makes them over into sensitive enlightened outcasts, a kind of 19th-century freak-show gallery of identity politics.
How piously anachronistic is that? Very. Yet “The Greatest Showman” wants to give you a splashy good time, and does, and it’s got something that takes you by surprise: a genuine romantic spirit. The numbers are shot like electromagnetic dance-pop music videos, and to say that they sizzle with energy wouldn’t do them justice — they’re like a hypodermic shot of joy to the heart. You know you’re watching conventional chorus-line-with-a-beat flimflam, all decorating a tall tale, but that’s the ultra Hollywood pleasure of “The Greatest Showman.” It’s a biopic that forges its own uplifting mythology, and if you think back on it when it’s over and feel, maybe just a little bit, like you’ve been had — well, that’s part of its sleight-of-hand charm. P.T. Barnum would have been suckered by it, and would have approved.
The movie, shot with richly lacquered pizzazz by Seamus McGarvey, opens with a spectacular shot of Jackman’s Barnum, silhouetted under the rafters in his signature long coat and top hat, looking like as pure a creature of theatrical bravado as the M.C. in “Cabaret.” And though “The Greatest Showman” offers a much more family-friendly vision (this film about the sleazy bottom rungs of the entertainment world is one you could easily take young children to), it conjures the spirit of Bob Fosse — his imperious snap and verve — in the sexy precision of its choreography, and in its vision of a lowly circus that titillates and thrills because it demonstrates that all the world’s a stage.
The basic storyline, however, is tidy in its symmetries, made with a pleasing neo-traditional studio-system squareness. That first number, “The Greatest Show,” with its wild and primitive beat merging into a powerful hook, breaks off after about a minute, leaving us salivating for more stage ecstasy. The movie then flashes back to the 1820s, when Phineas Taylor Barnum is just a kid (played by Ellis Rubin, who suggests a hungry young Pete Townshend), traveling to rich people’s houses along with his tailor father, and watching the two of them get treated like the lowliest of servants. At the snobby home of the Halletts (Frederic Lehne and Kathryn Meisle), Phineas meets their daughter, Charity (Skylar Dunn), and the soaring duet “A Million Dreams,” with its creamy pristine harmonies, establishes “The Greatest Showman” as one of those movies in which a couple fall in love as children, and the enchanted innocence of their connection lets us know that that love will be forever.
Phineas grows up into P.T. Barnum (Jackman), who woos Charity (Michelle Williams) over the disdainful objections of her father. This sets up the essence of his motivation to become a showman: He wants to give Charity the life to which she’s accustomed — and, while he’s at it, to whip her father at his own game.
Barnum ekes out a living in a Dickensian shipping office, and when the company goes bankrupt, he’s got nothing to lose. The couple now has two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and Barnum’s fantasy is a kind of trifecta: He wants to fend for his family (he’s wounded at not being able to buy his girls ballet slippers), he wants to validate the love of the wife he lured into poverty — and he wants to do something that no one has done before: turn life, in all its gutbucket wonder, into a star attraction.
Jackman plays Barnum with a rapacious grin, his eyes twinkling with moonstruck pleasure. He wants the whole world to see what he sees, and a little more — he wants them to see the tawdry wonder of it. That will require a new kind of presentational daring, not to mention a little lying. Eagerly, with his eyes on the prize, Barnum lines up his fabulous freaks: a 500-pound man, who he will bill as a 750-pound man (why not?), dubbing him the Irish Giant (even though he’s Russian). A 22-year-old dwarf known as Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), whom he dresses as Napoleon on a horse. And, of course, the most singular freak of all: Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), the Bearded Lady. Barnum convinces these benighted folks to join his circus, housed in a building in Manhattan just as the city’s concrete grandeur is locking into place — the new world being constructed around horse-and-buggy paths. Barnum is already plugging into the notion that people are numb, jaded, overwhelmed. They need something to prod them to life.
The crowd, he says, will have a chance to behold the humanity of his freaks — and that’s true, in a sense, to what P.T. Barnum did. He dragged the strange and the deformed out of the closet (literally, in some cases), and forced his audience to confront their realness. Yet if you’re really going to get real about it, he was a master exploiter. This was not “My Left Foot;” he packaged his freaks as The Other — and “The Greatest Showman” turns Barnum, for all his carny capitalism, into the multiculti Mother Teresa of oddball showmanship. He really believes he’s doing it for their own good, and so does the movie.
Yet when Barnum’s attractions join together to sing and dance their eccentric asses off in the exhilarating chorus of “Come Alive” (“And you know you can’t go back again,/To the world that you were living in,/’Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open”), the number sweeps you into its majestic syncopated flow, with its hint of gospel, its surge of melodic compassion. The songs were composed by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for the songs in “La La Land,” and they’ve crafted rhythms and melodies that drive the movie — gorgeously — forward. When the Bearded Lady gets her own number, the inspirational rouser “This Is Me,” the scene is a pure-hearted epiphany. It’s enough to make you want to see “The Elephant Man” turned into a musical written by Lady Gaga.
The numbers in “The Greatest Showman” have a dance-pop fire that keeps you hooked, and that bursting-out quality recalls, at times, the spirit of “Moulin Rouge!” Yet “The Greatest Showman,” while it’s all but destined to become the crowd-pleaser of the holiday season (and, just possibly, a surprise awards contender), lacks the darkly audacious grandeur that made “Moulin Rouge!” a work of movie-musical art. The film’s conflicts have a storybook simplicity.
Barnum hires, as a right-hand man, a slumming rich-kid playwright, Phillip Caryle (Zac Efron), who’s got downscale showmanship in his blood. Phillip is quickly consumed by his love for the black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a clandestine passion that builds to the devotional duet “Rewrite the Stars,” a number literally — and spiritually — suspended in air. Efron and Zendaya have a terrific chemistry — they never stop seeking each other out. But it’s Barnum’s wandering eye that drives the film’s conflict.
During a visit to Queen Victoria, he meets the celebrated Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), and he’s captivated — by her voice, and her crystaline presence. On stage in America, kicking off the tour that Barnum leverages his empire to arrange (which really happened), Jenny, in ruby-red lipstick, sings “Never Enough” with an ecstatic solemnity that leaves you floored. The spectacular vocals are by “The Voice” alum Loren Allred, who with her rapturous cries of “Never! Never!” sounds like Adele ascending into the heavens. Has Barnum fallen in love? A little bit, yet he remains faithful to his wife. The real thing he’s fallen for is Jenny’s dream of upscale sublimity. So he begins to leave his freaks behind.
The director, Michael Gracey, is an Australian maker of commercials who has never directed a feature before, and he works with an exuberant sincerity that can’t be faked. “The Greatest Showman” is a concoction, the kind of film where all the pieces click into place, yet at an hour and 45 minutes it flies by, and the link it draws between P.T. Barnum and the spirit of today is more than hype. Barnum, in his carny-barker way, knows that everyone is a star; his appeal, as Jackman portrays him, is that he changes the world by getting the whole world to believe that. He really did invent the greatest show on earth. Until, of course, it was topped by something called Hollywood.