This sweeping musical romance tells the story of legendary circus impresario P.T. Barnum and his rise to fame through persistence, ingenuity and most importantly, the love of his family. The charismatic performances, colorful characters, and excellent tunes make this the best date movie in ages.
In these blockbuster-focused times— in which movies battle to have the biggest possible, headline-making opening weekends and then often plummet in popularity the next weekend— The Greatest Showman has defied all the odds to become a true word-of-mouth sensation. It opened in 4th place back on December 20, earning just under $9 million and was deemed a huge flop by the entertainment press, appearing to be a hopeless failure since it only had 54 percent of critics approving it on the key Rotten Tomatoes website.
But something unexpected happened: audiences fell completely in love with the movie. It has hung on steadily, making more and more money over its second and third weekends before just slightly dropping last weekend, and now has made more than $114 million with no end in sight. 90 percent of viewers have liked it on Rotten Tomatoes as well, proving that the critics are far off base on this one.
What makes it so great? And why is the PG-rated movie not just a great family film, but also a terrific date movie?
A Largely Unknown Story Told With Great Style
The Greatest Showman tells the story of Barnum, one of the most colorful figures of the 19th century and by extension American history. Surprisingly, he has never been the subject of a major movie or Broadway show before, so the Oscar-winning team of composers from La La Land (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) has managed to tell the story of this American legend with songs that are completely new to viewers’ ears.
Even more surprising is the way that they crafted their tunes, taking a page from the Broadway smash Hamilton to meld a traditional orchestral score with catchy hip-hop beats on many of the songs and make what could have felt like a timeworn story hip and current.
Combined with lyrics that give voice to the great dreamers and eccentric outsiders (including a bearded lady and a dwarf) in Barnum’s troupe yearn for acceptance, the songs hook viewers in sonically while becoming irresistible sing-alongs. (In fact, one weekend thus far featured hundreds of the film’s theaters showing special editions complete with the lyrics on screen so audiences could do just that).
But the movie is also a testament to enduring, lifelong love and a passionate ode to marriage and children. At the heart of it all is Hugh Jackman, who can pretty much do anything in a movie at this point, from violent heroics as Wolverine in 10 superhero flicks to heavy drama in films like Prisoners to epic musicals like Les Miserables— and he helps draw viewers into this magical world with full-stop gusto. It’s a rare blessing for a movie to have a star who can make viewers follow any stylistic twist, and The Greatest Showman benefits immensely from his star power.
Lifelong Dreams and Enduring Love
The movie opens with Phineas T. Barnum as a young apprentice to his father, who’s a tailor, among other things. Working with his father for a rich man, Barnum becomes smitten with the man’s pretty blonde daughter, Charity (played as an adult by Michelle Williams). Barnum and Charity start a correspondence. After his father dies, Barnum goes off to find his fortune and, at 19, returns to Charity to take her away as his wife.
However, the couple struggles for several years, but begin to raise two beautiful daughters, Caroline and Helen. On the rooftop of their apartment after losing his job with a ship-owning company that went bankrupt, Barnum amazes his daughters with a magic lantern device and tells them to pick a dream. Helen wants to marry Santa Claus, but Caroline wants a pair of ballet shoes.
Barnum uses a ruse to get a loan of $10,000 to buy a museum of stuffed animals and wax figures. He renames the building Barnum’s American Museum, yet has problems selling tickets to the museum.
His problems disappear when he convinces a small dwarf named Charles Stratton to pose as General Tom Thumb and hires two black trapeze artists, a bearded lady, a hairy young man Barnum calls Dog Boy, and other human oddities, with Barnum as the ringmaster.
Suddenly, little Caroline has her ballet slippers, and the family has a beautiful new house, right down the street from Charity’s skeptical, mean father. Barnum’s good fortune soon hits some snags, however. Some people don’t like the human oddities he’s assembled. And, the other young girls in Caroline’s ballet class don’t like how her father makes his money.
Barnum staves off these naysayers by going to England with his troupe to visit the Queen. He returns to New York City with Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind, who awes the highbrow set.
However, it’s only a matter of time before Barnum’s flaunting of social convention hits a snag he may not be able to overcome.
Traditional Values Shared in Nontraditional Ways
Put it all together, and you have a movie that speaks to the heart, makes spirits soar and shows that even though any marriage can have struggles, a passionate commitment can result in lifelong love. And Showman does it all with such unique flair, due to its highly unusual coterie of circus folks, that viewers never feel preached at or talked down to for a moment.
The Golden Globe Awards nominated Jackman for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical and honored the movie with a Best Picture nomination in that category. Unfortunately, the Oscars only nominated its most heartfelt song— “This Is Me,” an ode to individuality and belief in your innate specialness— and like many critics ignored it on all other levels.
But that just goes to show that Showman— much like Barnum himself— had his finger on the pulse of the people. And that’s always most important in the end when it comes to entertaining the masses.