by Jace Schwartz
The story finds its inspiration in the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum whose ingenious vision brought to life the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the late 19th century. To play the role of the creative showman, who better than Hollywood’s very own Renaissance man of talent, Hugh Jackman. In this glittering spectacle of song and dance (yes, it’s a musical), Jackman and crew strut their stuff to argue that this is, indeed, the greatest show.
In a single musical number which narrates his time from childhood to adulthood, the audience is introduced to (and immediately falls in love with) Phineas Taylor Barnum, a family man of humble beginnings and big dreams. Eager to provide a better life for his poor family and having just lost his job, Barnum risks it all in an enormous investment to revitalize a local wax museum. His efforts prove futile, however, and Barnum finds himself in a corner, forced to give the whole enterprise one final go in a last-stitch effort. After heeding the counsel of his two young daughters, Barnum decides that the museum must be purged of its waxed inhabitants and instead be reanimated with living attractions.
Thus, the money-making circus is born as P.T. Barnum enlists any and all whose strange appearance or unique skill set has earned them the title of “freak.” The bearded lady finds her place among the ranks of Dog Boy and Tom Thumb, and the whole entourage proves to be worth the investment as Barnum’s show becomes the hottest attraction in town.
But the bliss proves fleeting when Barnum grows drunk with the liquor of success. As Barnum’s circus continues to earn the praises of the public, it also earns him an audience with Queen Victoria in England. There, the glamour of the upper class wins Barnum over, and his family of freaks is left in the dust as Barnum pursues the lifestyle of the rich and famous, leaving the audience walking the tight rope along with Barnum of remembering who you are amidst the trappings of pomp and circumstance.
Without spoiling the ending, here are a few things that can be said about The Greatest Showman. As was mentioned before, this movie is as musical as they come. From beginning to end, Michael Gracey’s film is pulsing with modern pop beats (and let me tell you, they’re downright catchy), anachronistically loaded into the classic 19th century Victorian Era. This smart decision provides the story with whimsical conflict resolution and melodic exposition, while also coupling it with a vibrant color pallet to bring to life the lyrics sung at the beginning of the film which tell of the “colors in their head.” The film seeks to model well its title as it wows the audience for an hour and 45 minutes.
What does Dove think? Given the clean nature of this family film, The Greatest Showman does make it out on top with the Dove Seal of Approval. It’s rated PG which, by all accounts, seems to be a fair judgment. It should be noted, however, that P.T. Barnum’s story is one of seeking out the “freaks” of society, a sight which is portrayed in technicolor in this film. There are a few scenes of scantily clad circus performers, the rising conflict of Barnum’s temptation with another woman aside from his wife, and a few scenes of violence at the hands of hateful and antagonistic audience members to Barnum’s exotic show. Along the way, two important messages rise to the surface.
The first is warmly welcomed by all, I think. As Barnum’s success grows, so does his pride and lust for fame. His downfall provides the audience with a message of humility and selflessness when the temptation for glory comes knocking. The second message might be summed up with following statement which was never stated directly in the film but rings loud and clear all the same: “I am lovable and spectacular the way I am.” A message like this can result in two conversations. On one hand, it rightly critiques the spirit of judgment and hatred that we see cropping up more and more towards people in marginalized situations. Whatever your convictions on race, gender, nationality, etc., any message which seeks to honor “the least of these” and hear them out in their plight can be appreciated. No doubt this movie seeks to give a voice to those that don’t fit in, and in doing so rightly showcases the inherent beauty found within humanity, regardless of say, skin color, just to name one issue which arises in the film. As followers of Jesus, we know this to be the beauty of being made in the image of God, whatever our outer appearance might be. For that reason alone, this movie will prove to warm hearts during a family’s night out and encourage good conversation. On the other hand, that same message of “I am lovable and spectacular the way I am,” might also provide an appropriate space to talk about our imperfections in a broken world. While we are made in the image of God, we are still far from perfect, something which the movie is not quick to acknowledge. Inevitably, a message which celebrates inherent beauty tends to skip over inherent brokenness, and it’s a conversation like this that cannot be sorted out in any review, but instead requires the T.L.C. of a loving environment where open discussion can be had. This movie is clean, safe, and receives Dove’s Seal for Ages 12+, but like all things, it ought to invite us to press in and ask the harder questions.