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Film Review: The Greatest Showman

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“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” a newspaper critic asks Barnum after his show, a question easily applied to the film itself. Barnum, a twinkle in his eye, replies “Do the smiles seem fake?”.

That, in a nutshell, is what The Greatest Showman is: a slick, uncomplex and feel-good 105 minutes that may not leave much of an impact after the credits roll, but that serve audiences a generous helping of holiday cheer. The film is corny and predictable in the best way, romanticising the life of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, played in perfect tune and with irresistible energy by Hugh Jackman.

Since its release the film has come under heavy criticism, focusing on what viewers saw to be a whitewashing of history. The film isn’t particularly progressive because though its messages are all positive, they are overly uncontroversial; The Greatest Showman chooses to sidestep Barnum’s divisive attitudes, and thus does not explore the moral dilemma at the core of his story between offering his performers a better living than otherwise possible, and blatant exploitation. Portrayed instead as a lovable dreamer, family man and champion for inclusivity, Barnum is therefore transformed into an appropriate lead for a film intended as family entertainment.

If one goes in expecting a historically accurate, gritty biopic, you will be sorely disappointed. Yet the film never pretended to be that, its colourful banners and promotions proudly jubilant. It is designed to be a non-controversial crowd pleaser, one that is not truly the story of Barnum’s life, but rather a formulaic rags-to-riches narrative loosely constructed around the outlines of Barnum’s career.

Not overly concerned with character development, intricate narratives or psychological consistency, Michael Gracey’s directing debut is fully committed instead to a dynamic, euphoric sugar rush of a film, with peppy musical numbers, energetic choreography, and vividly coloured frames. The heavy use of CGI further contributes to the artificiality of an already grand tale, but in a manner that feels intentional, such that it further instils the idea that such a film should not be taken too seriously.

The soundtrack is supported by hugely talented voices to create an exhilarating, if not very profound, anthem that uplifts with great ease. The casting is The Greatest Showman’s strongest point, with Jackman’s charm and powerful presence carrying the film along, supported with perfect balance and appeal by Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya. Together their entwining musical numbers flow freely from one to the next and contribute to a swift plot pace that drives the audience along on a rollercoaster ride that only goes up.

It’s a wholesome package of family-friendly entertainment, fun and smooth, designed wholly to distract and bring joy to viewers for the duration of the film, and not much longer. Its bright and exuberant visuals and songs are intended to distract, to entertain at a most basic level; in other words, enjoy the ride but don’t expect The Greatest Showman to leave a lasting impact. Just let yourself been had by the Barnum charm.

 The Greatest Showman is out now, distributed by 20th Century Fox.

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