The Greatest Showman: Give ’em the ol’ razzle dazzle

Style far exceeds substance in Hugh Jackman’s latest film, a biopic of famed circus founder PT Barnum that’s more Broadway musical than anything else.

It’s unlikely you’ll find anything quite like “The Greatest Showman” in theaters this winter. Director Michael Gracey delivers a cinematic experience that becomes almost one over-extended music video with bits of dialogue in between as opposed to a musically enhanced drama.

The stage is set for “The Greatest Showman” to be a smash. Combine the talents of a deep ensemble cast led by Tony Award winner Jackman with the music of “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul surefire recipe for success.

Despite the film’s peaks being exceptionally high, however, the valleys in “The Greatest Showman” are strikingly pedestrian and often feel like a grind to get through as viewers eagerly await the next show-stopping number.

Gracey’s film gives a rough outline of the famed circus entrepreneur’s rise from poverty to wealth, but nearly all the drama and romance rightly expected from a Barnum biopic is wasted as Gracey crams another song and dance number into the 100-minute film. Audiences can never truly be convinced that Barnum is in fact “the greatest showman” as the film’s title implies, but certainly the flashiest one.

The first time director’s flaws are readily apparent, heeding the advice of the classic Chicago song: “razzle dazzle ’em and they’ll never catch wise!”

Color, pizazz and a whole lot of movement obscure a film where the performers don’t have to try really hard to convey character and dialogue scenes appear to be loosely sketched out rather than fully realized.

The brightest spot in “The Greatest Showman” comes from the remarkable musical artistry of Pasek and Paul, whose memorable, infectious tunes are brought to life an interesting, often visually dazzling ways. This usually comes in the form of bombastic, dance-heavy group numbers like “The Greatest Show” or “This Is Me,” but the film’s best moments are more stripped down.

Jackman does his best acting work of the entire film with an early number dreaming about the life Barnum wants to give his wife and their two young girls. The multi-talented star is a perfect choice to play Barnum given how Gracey wants Barnum’s audiences, and the ones in the theater by extension, to simply be charmed and won over by a smile.

It’s clear from the first frame how much Jackman wants The Greatest Showman to be amazing, though a decidedly smaller count of effort is equally apparent on screen from Jackman’s two leading ladies.

Neither Rebecca Ferguson nor Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams appear to be having much fun or even halfway engaged in their performances as Swedish songbird Jenny Lind and Barnum’s wife, Charity, respectively. Though it varies from scene to scene, there’s a clear disengagement from the material the eyes of both performers who seemed as if they just want to sing their songs and go home.

The same cannot be said of former Disney stars Zac Efron and Zendaya, whose characters share the film’s secondary romance and pull off the most captivating number of the entire movie, a dazzling aerial display set to Pasek and Paul’s “Rewrite The Stars.” It’s here – along with the Efron and Jackman duet “The Other Side” – that the performers, and in turn the audience, have the most fun, resulting in spectacles worth the price of admission alone.

The Greatest Showman earned the Golden Globe nominations for best picture and best actor in the musical and comedy category as well as for best original song, accolades that don’t seem translatable to the Oscar race. While Academy Award winners Pasek and Paul may be a lock for a song nod, things look bleaker for the film’s best picture and actor hopes the slew of high-quality dramatic films the Golden Globes moved into a separate category.

A Broadway musical captured in cinematic style, The Greatest Showman might not be for everyone. But this family-friendly film led by a charismatic Jackman and featuring some truly magnificent musical spectacle be something worth taking a chance on this holiday season.

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