I suppose it’s fitting that The Greatest Showman, a biopic of circus namesake P.T. Barnum and one of this year’s big-screen holiday offerings, would see release in 2017. The 146-year-old circus that bore his name, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, closed up shop in May of this year after becoming an unsustainable business venture with poor sales.
And then there’s Donald Trump, who in 2017 managed to turn the White House and the entirety of national politics into a three-ring circus.
But when it comes to the film, critics are mixed about The Greatest Showman. Some find that it lives up to its movie musical intentions — “a fantasia of song and dance” as one reviewer calls it” — while others feel it’s all visual with no substance.
The Michael Gracey-directed film — starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya and Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady — features songs by the duo behind both La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen.
Here’s what the critics are saying about The Greatest Showman:
Entertainment Weekly‘s Leah Greenblatt gave the film a B:
The movie never quite stops feeling like Moulin Rouge! written in extra-large block font, or Broadway projected straight onto a big screen, which certainly isn’t bad news if that’s exactly what you love. Though it doesn’t help that the 49-year-old Jackman, one of the most charming men in two hemispheres, is asked to play roughly half his age for nearly half the movie—or that Williams isn’t given much to do besides twirl and nod and smile sweetly, unless she’s frowning sweetly. There must have been real collateral damage from the kind of single-minded ambition that drove a man like Barnum, but there’s nothing here that a tip of his top hat and a step-ball-change can’t seem to smooth over by the next scene.
Pete Hammond of Deadline calls The Greatest Showman a “lively family musical”:
P.T. Barnum always has been regarded as a great entrepreneur and show business pioneer who saw things no one else did, perhaps realizing the business was just one big circus. The new musical The Greatest Showman avoids the pitfalls of typical biopics to become more of a fantasia of song and dance, a joyous exercise in pure entertainment that is made for the holiday crowd. If it doesn’t get swallowed up by other family fare like another Jumanji, another Star Wars, another Pixar toon and even Fox’s own Ferdinand, audiences will discover than true rarity: an original movie musical.
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman calls it “a concoction that soars”:
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 New York Times‘ Jason Zinoman refers to the film as “smaller than life”:
The Greatest Showman, a montage sequence that occasionally turns into a movie musical, steers clear of any contemporary resonance and ignores meaty themes. The first-time director Michael Gracey achieves an aggressively synthetic style through kinetic editing and tidy underdog stories, but none of the true joy of pulling a fast one. It’s a standard-issue holiday biopic, one that tells a story about a populist entertainer hungry for highbrow respect, the joys of showbiz and the price of ambition. An amusement park version of P.T. Barnum is fine, as far as that goes, but if you are going to aim for family-friendly fun, you need to get the fun part right.
In a hilarious piece for Esquire, Dave Holmes calls it “an inexplicable musical that’s mostly full of shit”:
Listen, I don’t know if The Greatest Showman is a great movie, or even a good one, and maybe that’s the point: It is, after all, about a guy who paraded human beings with unconventional body shapes before leering, laughing audiences and got rich doing it. But the movie did two things any movie should do: It took me out of my panicked head, and it gave Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron 320 opportunities each to stand with their arms outstretched in victory. Seriously, this movie is about 60 percent Scott Stapp pose.