“The Greatest Showman” isn’t the greatest show on Earth, but it’s a pretty good one, and as an original musical for kids weaned on animation, one of those rare live-action commodities that really does invite family viewing. It’s not “La La Land,” despite a shared pedigree, but the movie’s buoyancy does offer similar moments of gravity-defying escapism.
Hugh Jackman holsters his claws and dons his song-and-dance hat as P.T. Barnum, or rather, a heavily romanticized version of him. He starts as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with big dreams, marrying his privileged childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) and embarking on a gamble to provide her a life of equal measure.
After toiling in a dreary office job, Barnum finagles a loan to launch a showcase for “unique persons” and “curiosities,” treating these “freaks” – as the rabble calls them – with respect. “They’re laughing anyway, kid,” he tells his world’s smallest man candidate, “so might as well get paid.”
Barnum turns his museum of the unusual into a moneymaking machine. But in the script by Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City”) and Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast”), his lowly upbringing still makes him yearn for acceptance among the upper-crust swells. He sees his ticket to that by bringing opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a.k.a. the Swedish Nightingale, to America, a brush with prestige that exacts a toll.
That dynamic, and the challenged romance between Phillip (Zac Efron), who Barnum recruits to class up the show, and the trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya), provide what little dramatic tension “The Greatest Showman” has to offer. Part of that has to do with what feels like a conspicuous choice to calibrate the movie to a family audience, sanding down any rough edges.
Yet as mounted by first-time director Michael Gracey (whose credits include commercials and music videos), the movie compensates for that with its muscular choreography and music filled with power ballads and catchy pop hooks. The latter come courtesy of “La La Land” team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Not all those numbers take off, but a few do – literally, in a lovely aerial love song featuring Efron and Zendaya; and “This is Me,” a defiant anthem sung by Keala Settle. The latter highlight’s the strong underlying theme about accepting differences, which might seem like afterschool-special territory but packs a stronger wallop when presented with a Broadway belt.
Jackman provides the movie with a solid emotional spine, in a package designed to showcase the skills he’s displayed on stage and in “Les Miserable.” The joy the performers exhibit, in fact, is practically contagious, and helps carry the movie over its drier patches.
“Greatest Showman” earned a Golden Globe nomination, but with so few true musicals to consider, the real news would have been if it hadn’t. Beyond his traveling circus, Barnum is famously if erroneously associated with the phrase about a sucker being born every minute.
Fortunately, anteing up to take the kids to see “The Greatest Showman” doesn’t feel like a sucker bet.
“The Greatest Showman” premieres Dec. 20 in the U.S. It’s rated PG.