[Screen It]

(2017) (Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron) (PG)

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Musical: A man from humble beginnings finds his calling and great success in showmanship regarding his circus of oddities.
P.T. Barnum (HUGH JACKMAN) is a 19th century man who grew up dirt poor and ended up as a street urchin, but still managed to draw the interest of Charity (MICHELLE WILLIAMS) who grew up in a wealthy family. When she leaves to marry P.T. and raise a family, her snooty father is sure she'll be back soon. And when the business P.T. works for closes for good due to many of its ships ending at the bottom of the sea -- leaving P.T., Charity and their two young daughters with little to no money - it seems her father's prediction might prove true.

But P.T. decides to gamble on their future by taking out a $10,000 loan -- using the now worthless notes from some of those aforementioned ships as collateral -- and buying an old museum of oddities. Despite the family hustling to sell tickets, they get few attendees. It's when one of the daughters states they need something living and sensational in the museum that the light bulb goes off in P.T.'s head. Having already seen diminutive 22-year-old Charles Stratton (SAM HUMPHREY), P.T. convinces him to be the first member of his new attraction of human oddities and circus performers.

That leads to a wide variety of people joining his act ranging from Lettie Lutz, a.k.a. The Bearded Woman (KEALA SETTLE), to trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (ZENDAYA). The latter draws the interest of Phillip Carlyle (ZAC EFRON), a playwright who's well-connected in the inner circle of the rich. That's an audience that P.T. covets above and beyond the everyday common folk who've made his act a big hit, although newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett (PAUL SPARKS) looks down on the offerings.

Word of P.T.'s success eventually leads to international acclaim, and it's when he, Phillip and the rest go to visit young Queen Victoria that P.T. meets legendary European opera singer Jenny Lind (REBECCA FERGUSON). Now a master at promotion, P.T. convinces her that he can make her a star in the U.S. and worldwide, and the two set off on a concert tour. From that point on, Phillip and the rest of the performers begin to sense that P.T.'s enthusiasm for them has now taken a backseat to his more lofty aspirations, while Charity ends up stuck at home raising their two kids by herself.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
I'm certainly not as knowledgeable about Broadway musicals as I am about movies, but just thinking off the top of my head (an expression, by the way, that's never really made sense to me, yet I still use it) I can't think of two or more completely separate musicals that focused on or revolved around the same person or events. In the world of movies, it's not that uncommon, but for the life of me (another odd saying) I can't name a set of musicals that fall under that parameter.

Granted, if it's never happened, it still hasn't technically. But I can't imagine that those behind the movie "The Greatest Showman" aren't planning on turning that into a full-blown, blockbuster production on the great white way. Or that those who watch the film and fall under its spell won't be clamoring for a stage version of it with, of course, Hugh Jackman reprising his big screen role in the proscenium.

If you're wondering where the "different musicals" on the same matter comes into play, it's that the life of Phineas Taylor, a.k.a. P.T., Barnum debuted in song, dance and acrobatics in the 1980 Broadway play "Barnum." It ran for 854 performances, spawned a London production (and others after that) and racked up an impressive 10 Tony Award nominations with wins for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design.

Whether fans of the theater will cry foul is yet to be determined, but if you like watching movie musicals with catchy songs, terrific cinematography and creative choreography, and Mr. Jackman belting out the tunes like the seasoned musical pro he is, I think you're going to love this offering. The fact that its songs were written by Broadway songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("Dear Evan Hansen") who won the Oscar last year for "La La Land" only adds to its "must see" status.

After director Michael Gracey opens with the amazing "The Greatest Show" musical number, the story (penned by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon) briefly focuses on young P.T.'s hard life (with the moving "A Million Dreams" hitting the right notes, musically and emotionally) and then later running off with his childhood acquaintance from the other side of the tracks, Charity (Michelle Williams) to get hitched and have a family.

But when he finds himself unemployed for no fault of his own, he takes a huge risk and buys an old museum of static oddities and when that doesn't fly he takes advice from one of his daughters and decides to add live people with unique characteristics. The first person he goes after is Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) who says people will just laugh at him (for being a small person), but P.T. argues that they're going to laugh anyway, so why not get paid for it (and indeed, "Tom Thumb" would later become the biggest star of his day). He then proceeds to line up a wide range of people fitting that bill including Broadway star Keala Settle playing Lettie Lutz, a.k.a. the Bearded Lady as well as circus performers such as trapeze artist Annie (Zendaya).

With a knack for promoting all of them individually and as a collection (but, I think, without ever uttering the famous -- and possibly misattributed -- Barnum saying of "There's a sucker born every minute"), he strikes gold but wants to match or best the rich (including Charity's father) who previously looked down their noses at him. That leads to him hiring an upper-class playwright (Zac Efron) and making him a minority business partner, and then meeting and deciding to promote European opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). As that develops, it begins to show his true colors to those he helped but also exploited on his way toward the top. And, of course, Pasek and Paul's songs give the various characters their spotlight to express their feelings and more, much of which makes for some incredibly powerful and moving songs (with great orchestration backing the singing). In fact, I've been listening to the soundtrack while writing this review and going from goose bumps to teary eyes and back again. I'll admit I wasn't expecting much from this film (mainly because the studio didn't show it for award voting purposes to any critics groups outside of the Globes), but I was blown away from beginning to end. I can't wait to see it again and thus "The Greatest Showman" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 2017 / Posted December 20, 2017

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