One morning many months ago, I woke up and did what I usually do: scroll passively through my Twitter feed. As I swam through boredom, hitting the retweet button every once in a while, a video came across my timeline that intrigued me. It was the trailer for The Greatest Showman. It was everything I needed: a theatrical musical with bombastic music. Immediately in that moment it became one of my most anticipated movies of 2017.
Over the past weekend, I finally saw it. And, despite how great the musical numbers were, I felt let down. At first I couldn’t place exactly why, but after sitting with it for a few days, I think I know what the problem is: the characters. Very little development was given to any of the characters, so they were difficult to root for. The film really played like a race to get to the next plot point in P.T. Barnum’s life story or the next song. How can I feel for these characters when I don’t know who they are?
This is especially problematic in Barnum’s circus performers. All I know about them (with perhaps the exception of Anne) is that they’re different but learn to embrace those differences and love themselves how they are. Ordinarily, that would be a great arc, but it’s supplemented with nothing. When Barnum bars them from entering his classy party with members of high society, the reaction is “wow, he’s an asshole” not “how could you do that to these wonderful people.” If more time and care had gone into these characters, the story and their arcs would’ve been far more effective.
This also makes character motivations unclear. For example, after Barnum decides to leave his tour with Jenny Lind early, Jenny sabotages his reputation by kissing him in front of the cameras. However, we’re given no indication prior that this character is capable of doing something like this. I guess there was supposed to be sexual tension between her and Barnum, but that’s not enough reason for her want to tarnish his reputation. This vindictive behavior was without purpose and thus only weakened the story.
It became very clear very fast that this story cared more about getting to the next plot point than in telling a good story. The entire film felt very rushed. It was difficult to become immersed in any one point in time, when just when you became invested it would jump to the next Important Moment. Despite flowing well, it didn’t tell a detailed, emotional story.
All this being said, the musical numbers are superb. Whether it’s a big production like “The Greatest Show” or “Come Alive” or an intimate dance like “Rewrite the Stars” or “Tightrope,” every number was spectacularly done. I absolutely adore the soundtrack as well. It was just what the doctor ordered.
From a storytelling perspective, The Greatest Showman is completely non-impactful, barely a blip in your brain. The character development is utterly nonexistent and the forgiveness Barnum receives is completely unearned. If only the film was as good as the soundtrack, but alas it is not the greatest show.