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Does ‘The Greatest Showman’ Really Put on “The Greatest Show”? A Deep Analysis.

Hugh Jackman’s musical about P.T. Barnum begins with a very lofty declaration that forces us to examine its validity

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

The first line of The Greatest Showman, from its star, Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, is quite the flex: “Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for.” The irrational but admirable confidence of the opening scene—in which Jackman weaves his way through performers jumping through rings and tossing knives—eventually crescendos with an entire circus belting out, “This is the greatest show!” The question is: Is it?

Does Jackman’s musical deliver? Is this, indeed, the greatest show? To answer that profound inquiry, we’ve crafted a questionnaire that will dig through all aspects of the movie—the musical numbers, the performances, the on-screen chemistry, the CGI circus animals, Michelle Williams’s happiness level—all that stuff. Reader, this is the moment you’ve waited for.

Is this Hugh Jackman’s greatest musical performance?

Jackman might be best known for the adamantium claws and literal growls of Wolverine, but musicals are clearly where his heart’s at—to wit, The Greatest Showman was his PASSION PROJECT, one that’s been in the works for seven years. Unfortunately, I cannot in good faith say that this matches his Les Miserables work of yesteryear. (It certainly helped that in Les Mis his foil was Russell Crowe, who cannot sing.) Jackman can sing, but even the best performers can’t cut it without the right material.

Are the lyrics thought-provoking?

These are some of the lyrics provided by La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that Jackman has to deliver with aplomb:

“It’s everything you ever want / It’s everything you ever need / And it’s here right in front of you”

“So come with me and take the ride / It’ll take you to the other side / 'Cause you can do like you do / Or you can do like me”

“Come alive, come alive / Go and ride your light / Let it burn so bright / Reaching up / To the sky / And it’s open wide / You’re electrified”

“Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor (woah)”

This all sounds like it came from that studio Rebecca Black paid to make “Friday” in 2011, with deeply unsettling imagery of mass amounts of perspiration.

Are the songs at least good?

The songs are catchy, but ultimately generic pop music. That’s not the best because sometimes in the movie, the moment calls for something other than pop. When Jackman’s Barnum tries to appeal to the more elitist crowd, he recruits a European opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), to join his enterprise. That’s all well and good—I went to the opera once, and it was a fun time—but The Greatest Showman has her deliver … a pop song.

“Never Enough,” actually performed by The Voice contestant Loren Allred, is not something you would hear at the opera; it is a song Adele would cut from her next album.


Are there cool CGI circus animals?

To be clear: Animals being forced to perform in a circus is not cool. However, this is a period piece, and people in the 1800s were super amped about being jerks to animals. With an $84 million budget, you’d think bringing in CGI circus animals would be a really fun flourish—this is “the greatest show,” after all.

Except they’re nowhere to be found. The only time we even see a lion is in the final musical piece of the film—where, no joke, they just sing “The Greatest Show” again—when two lions jump through rings next to Barnum. This is the most egregious mismanagement of a giant CGI cat since The Walking Dead.

The elephants are equally sparse. The only time they’re given proper screen time is after Barnum tells his business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) that he’s retiring from the circus to spend time with his family, when he rides off into the middle of Manhattan on an elephant. What was that conversation actually like? “Hey, so I’m gonna get out of here for good, let me just grab one of these here giant elephants for the road.”

Is Michelle Williams happy?

Think for a second about what Michelle Williams has gone through in recent films: A drunk Casey Affleck inadvertently kills their children in Manchester by the Sea; she dies in Wonderstruck; and her child is kidnapped in All the Money in the World. After all that, she deserves at least an iota of on-screen happiness.

Thank goodness, then, for The Greatest Showman! Sure, there are times when Williams’s Charity, Barnum’s wife, is dealing with some shit: When Barnum goes on tour with Jenny the Adele opera singer, there are infidelity rumors after Jenny plants a kiss on him during a show. However, one musical number at the beach is enough to bring the couple back together, because in The Greatest Showman, a catchy pop-sing is greater than narrative sense.

Does Williams have much to do aside from fawning over her showbiz husband? Not really, but at least she doesn’t have to deal with, like, an elephant accidentally stomping her child or something. At least she’s happy.

Does The Greatest Showman’s hot young couple have any chemistry?

Not only do they have chemistry, but let me tell you, my friend, it is electric! Seriously, the scenes between Zac Efron’s Phillip and Zendaya’s trapeze artist Anne Wheeler are easily the best part of the movie. The duo are also responsible for The Greatest Showman’s best song, “Rewrite the Stars,” which sounds genuinely sentimental and looks spectacular on the screen, as Zendaya trapezes across the stage while they profess their love for one another.

Does The Greatest Showman feature Zac Efron’s best on-screen kiss?

Well, what has he said?

Let’s run the tape back on Zendaya’s reaction:

Should Zac Efron do more musicals?

Yes, he needs to get out of his unnaturally buff Baywatch phase and go back to the glory days of High School Musical—with just a little more abs. And if he can do something opposite of Zendaya again, he really should.

How does the audience react to the movie?

There were at least two people in my theater who were very pumped about The Greatest Showman. The first was a woman in high heels who ran in late during the first musical number and collapsed with a booming thud, followed immediately by a second stumble, before she eventually limped to an open seat. She did not want to miss what was being advertised as the greatest show!

The second was the one person in the theater who applauded at the end credits.

Is this the greatest show?

After tabulating all of the answers to the smaller questions, we can now answer the larger question: The Greatest Showman is not the greatest show; my sweat was not soaking through the floor. Unfortunately, The Greatest Showman is probably not even the third-best show. But if you need something to fill two hours of your time on a flight, then, in that one extremely specific scenario, The Greatest Showman is the greatest show.