This movie-musical has had a critically mixed reception. I have not read the reviews. For good and bad, the music is of the “musical” variety with (from what I can discern) a fine awareness of current chart trends. Hugh Jackman does what he’s best at (and what he’s probably known least for) and he does a great job. His marching band uniform shares an aesthetic with Michael Jackson’s more militaristic stage costumes, and the performances are on a similar par throughout.
What’s the movie all about? Artistic endeavour of all kinds is sophistry. Whether we’re watching computer-generated lions, or we’re reading fiction that actually happened, it’s the creator’s vocation to convince us of the truth (or fact) of the creation, to persuade the audience.
The film certainly succeeds, on a level, through PT Barnum’s belief in this same artistic tendency. Alongside his love for family, Barnum’s a huckster and a showman, happy to ride on the coattails of the critically lauded and to promote those who’ve yet to succeed (or would have little chance of success without him). His talents, his decency, self-awareness and lack of same – mainly filtered through the prism of his sense of entrepreneurial spirit and will to succeed – are also apparent; this ambiguity is driven by an awesome performance from Jackman.
Zac Efron plays the more level-headed business partner (with a powerful falsetto in a great duet) who falls for one half of one of Barnum’s acts, a gorgeous lash-face of a trapeze artist played by Zendaya (the other half of Efron’s duet).
Adding a more moralistic element to play against the mild cynicism of Barnum, their arc is equally powerful.
Michelle Williams is on form as Barnum’s wife, and while Barnum’s shallower spin-doctoring skills occasionally broach his personal life to cause crisis, there are similar equally pressing issues in the other elements. There’s a complexity in Barnum and (having just seen a quote from one critic with whom I disagree) it’s wonderfully revealed as the movie progresses.
Blink and you’ll miss it moment:
In Efron’s first duet with Jackman, where they negotiate their first partnership, a nineteenth-century prophylactic flies from Efron’s pocket as they dance through a public house. (Just kidding. I was outside having a smoke. Nothing fell from Efron’s pocket. That’s why I missed that whole scene.)
I’m glad the critics didn’t enjoy this because I was pleasantly surprised. They can be a fickle bunch. Very enjoyable if (seemingly) long. (Note: As with all musicals, you need a long movie to fit the song-and-dance numbers in.)