It is something of an irony that 2017, the year in which "the Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey circus closed forever, ends with a splashy movie musical, The Greatest Showman that celebrates the founding of that enterprise. Hugh Jackman plays the part of Phineas T. Barnum and the film is an exuberant, exceedingly inaccurate, musical biopic. Brilliantly edited, the film blasts along for 105 minutes, most of which seem devoted to colorful and extravagant song and dance numbers. There is no particularly virtuosic dancing in the film -- nothing to rival Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire -- and elaborate dance sequences look to me like variants on the kind of large-scale ensemble dancing that characterizes Bollywood productions. The musical song-and-dance numbers are not conceived as arias apart from the action -- rather, they tend to drive the film forward, contributing to its powerful narrative thrust. There are some tender love songs and a great pas de deux involving a boy and girl alternately hoisted up fifty feet in the air or twirling vertiginously downward on a thick rope connected to a massive counterweight, but the majority of the music is infectious, if heavy-handed rock and roll, instantly forgettable tunes carried along on a stomping beat -- in fact, at least, two numbers feature the dancers rhythmically stomping on the stage. There's no denying that much of music is impressive in a driving, propulsive kind of way and the lavish dance sequences are beautifully lit and edited. The movie is cut in such a way as to jump swiftly from action to action -- a boy and a girl climb a fence, the next shot is a close-up of the boy's boot landing heavily in the garden on the other side of the fence; this type of editing is characteristic of the film -- a gesture is directed to some future place or time and we are shown the objective of the gesture without any intervening motion.
The film begins with a big production number in a circus ring. Suddenly, the cheering audience goes silent and the movie progresses into a flashback. We see Barnum's youth as a poor and despised tailor's boy. (In one scene, when he is "down and out", a woman with a freakishly deformed face hands him an apple -- later, we see the apple as an inspiration for Barnum to gather into his show as many actual freaks as possible.) He marries into a wealthy family, to the great dismay of his bride's parents -- exactly how Barnum bridges the social and wealth gap is completely unclear and unimportant as far the story is concerned. Rather, with fairy tale aplomb, we see Barnum win the girl and, using some worthless titles to sunken ships as collateral, acquire sufficient capital to open his museum. He recruits a number of freaks -- these sequences are among the best and most touching in the film. The freaks are despised and their own parents are ashamed of them; Barnum gathers them together into an ensemble that serves as a kind of chorus throughout the film, a "family" as the impressively hirsute Bearded Lady says. Encountering Charles Strattan, later famous as General Tom Thumb, Barnum responds to the boy's complaint that "people will pay to laugh at me" by saying "their already laughing, you might as well make them pay." This isn't sufficiently persuasive and so Barnum says to the shy boy: "I will make you a general, dress you in the finest uniforms, and mount you on the most beautiful horse. People will look up to you." Using a similar pitch, Barnum enlists the rest of his company, including the famous Chang and Eng, Siamese Twins, and his human oddities make him a millionaire. All is well until Barnum, happily married with two little girls, entices Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to tour America. The showman loses his way, begins to adopt the highfalutin' ways of his critics, and, almost, succumbs to the Swedish singer's feminine wiles. She kisses him on stage and the image causes a scandal. (This element is a calumny on the good name of the historical Jenny Lind and terrifically unfair and untrue.) Barnum's freaks are constantly involved in street-fighting with local ruffians and there is a subtext involving societal disapproval of an inter-racial relationship between Barnum's partner and a comely African-American trapeze artist. In the course of a riot in which racist thugs fight the freaks, P. T. Barnum's museum of oddities burns down. Barnum seems defeated at first, but, then, his loyal freaks find him in a bar, perk up his spirits, and, revived, the great showman goes forth to win back his wife (and twin daughters) and found the Big-Top circus that bore his name until this very year 2017. While the freaks do an explosive dance under the Big Top, Barnum rides Jumbo, the immense elephant, through the snowy streets of Manhattan to join his wife for a ballet recital in which his two daughters star. And, so, there is a happy ending, pleasing to all. (Unseemly aspects of Barnum's career -- for instance, his exhibition of a tubercular and dying Black woman as the "slave who nursed George Washington", his display of the Circassian "moss-haired" women and the showman's exploitation of microcephalics and other developmentally disabled people in his shows -- are wholly suppressed.)
When the plot of The Greatest Showman is baldly recounted, it's pretty evident that the musical is heavily didactic, maudlin, and sentimental. And, I suppose, these criticism are accurate. But the film moves so swiftly and with such sure-footed grace that we are willing to accept all of its absurdities. The damned thing is so wonderfully entertaining that I am willing to forgive its manifold flaws. And, I suppose, there is something to be said for the messages of good will that the film so broadly transmits -- freaks are shown to be human and endearing and courageous, diversity is affirmed, and, even, Barnum's most hostile critic is won over -- "you seem to be celebrating the family of mankind," the priggish supercilious critic, now a fan, tells Barnum. The episodes move with lightning speed, the acting is universally good, and the ethical points that the film endorses are virtuous and worthy. Much of the dialogue is funny and epigrammatic -- it's like capitalist Brecht on steroids. This film is so purely entertaining that I'm compelled to recommend it.