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December 22, 2017

'The Greatest Showman' lets the freaks' flags fly

Review: Though quite the performer, Hugh Jackman offers an overly optimistic portrayal of P.T. Barnum

It is ironic that Hugh Jackman's first post-"Logan" role is the new musical, "The Greatest Showman," which tells the story of P.T. Barnum.

Because while Jackman could get as many "Wolverine" films as he wanted to make in today's insatiable comic-book movie climate in Hollywood, it took him eight long years to bring "The Greatest Showman" to the big screen. The actor has stated that it's because studios were leery of bringing an original musical to the big screen.

Well, the good news is that the film is worth the wait. It is the kind of rousing spectacle that Hollywood truly doesn't take a chance on anymore.

As the film opens, young Phineas Taylor Barnum (Ellis Rubin portrays young P.T.) was the poor tailor's son of Philo Barnum and his second wife, Irene Taylor. He is looked down on by the more affluent members of society, including the father of the girl he already pines for, Charity (played as a young girl by Skylar Dunn) – who literally slaps P.T. across the face for having the audacity of making his daughter laugh.

As his father dies relatively young, P.T. is consumed by two passions – Charity (played as an adult by Michelle Williams) and being the success his father never was and that no one thinks he can be.

His "stars" include people like "The Bearded Lady" (Keala Settle), but Jackman's P.T. and the film never treat them like freaks." 

The drama comes from whether one will cost him the other. Charity marries him and they are seemingly happy with two kids, yet the more successful P.T. becomes, the more he seems determined to do more, make more – and, seemingly most important to him – impress those like his now-father-in-law who always looked down on him.

This, of course, includes his launch of a museum and then show focused on oddities.  His "stars" include people like "The Bearded Lady" (Keala Settle), but Jackman's P.T. and the film never treat them like freaks. By being who they are, they make an impact on themselves and others – which is a powerful message.

Also strong in the film are the performances of Zac Efron and Zendaya, who engage in a forbidden romance that crosses boundaries of race and class. Their chemistry is palpable.

Also giving a memorable performance is Rebecca Ferguson as opera singer Jenny Lind, who P.T. wants to include on tour to impress the snobs who continue to look down on his regular show. In grasping for that respectability with Lind, P.T. risks his business and family and the results are not what you'd expect.

One cannot mention the film without mentioning the magnificent score, highlighted by songs like the Golden Globe nominated, "This Is Me," by Settle, "Rewrite The Stars," by Efron and Zendaya and "From Now On" by Jackman.

If Jackman has truly hung up Wolverine's claws for good, this is the kind of film that makes that loss acceptable. Even watching a gritty film of his like "Prisoners," one could be forgiven for wishing he do a gritty film starring Logan instead.

"The Greatest Showman," however, is so different and so able to take advantage of Jackman's skills in a way no X-movie ever could, that the loss is more than made up by the magnificent experience of this movie.

In the end, Jackman makes his P.T. in "The Greatest Showman" worthy of the title.