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Film review: 'The Greatest Showman' 

It's easy to respect the ambition behind "The Greatest Showman," an all-new, completely original movie musical based on the life of circus impresario P.T. Barnum. Coming from a first-time filmmaker -- Australian music-video director Michael Gracey -- the long-in-the-works film has been something of a passion project for star Hugh Jackman. The film's an over-the-top, song and dance extravaganza so eager to please that its defining characteristic can only be described as "enthusiastic," but it possesses a winning earnestness that helps overcome some of its shortcomings.

Barnum was a complicated figure, but "The Greatest Showman" has no aspirations toward authenticity, foregoing nuance to focus on a formulaic rags-to-riches story filled with bland platitudes about celebrating originality and chasing one's dreams. The film positions Barnum as the champion of society's outcasts and misfits, though the real-life Barnum's actions fell much more on the side of exploitation than advocacy.

On one hand, that's totally fine -- most people aren't going to a splashy, big-budget movie musical expecting anything resembling realism -- but there was certainly the potential for something more interesting to be mined from the same material. And while the film is simply aiming to entertain, the approach does allow the film to fall into the uncomfortable territory of a white savior narrative a bit too often. But taken simply as pure pop confection, the film's not without its pleasures, and it's easy to get swept up in the spectacle.

The version of Barnum portrayed in the film is a family man, the poor son of a tailor, but with aspirations of achieving something more. And that includes the promise of a better life for his wife Charity (a lovely Michelle Williams) and their two daughters. He eventually finds a way to make something of himself, creating a "museum of curiosities," an entertainment showcase he fills with novelty acts like a bearded lady (Keala Settle) and the diminutive Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). Most would call it a freak show, though for better or worse the film suggests it gave these unique individuals a sense of purpose and community, presenting them with opportunities they'd never otherwise have.

As the show grows in popularity, Barnum recruits a business partner, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who immediately falls in love with pink-haired trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). That love story feels wildly underdeveloped -- we never get any real sense of what exactly attracts the pair to each other, aside from the fact that, well, they look like Zac Efron and Zendaya. It might have helped things if Anne were given even a mere hint of a personality.

Despite flouting convention, Barnum still desires the approval and validation of mainstream society, and he eventually attempts to gain legitimacy by becoming the manager of opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). He ushers her on a tour across the country, which creates conflict when it requires him to be away from his family for lengthy stretches of time.

Connecting it all is a pop soundtrack featuring original songs by BenjPasek and Justin Paul, the prolific duo responsible for the songs from last year's "La La Land," and the Tony-winning stage musical "Dear Evan Hansen." Their work here leans toward the generic, overproduced sound of modern Top 40, but there are a few hummable tunes to be found.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is fairly by the numbers, and while the occasional cheap-looking digital effect sometimes makes the spectacle seem smaller and more muted than it should, director of photography Seamus McGarvey makes sure the razzle dazzle shines through.

Hugh Jackman has always been a hugely charismatic presence, especially when he's in song-and-dance mode. He's the film's secret weapon, and he sells the role of Barnum with everything he's got. He's matched every step of the way by a game Efron, who seems to be enjoying getting back in touch with his "High School Musical" roots. Their major song together, where Barnum plies his would-be partner with booze in an attempt to convince him to join the circus, is one of the film's more enjoyable numbers. Besides that song, the film's choreography is disappointingly bland, and only the "Rewrite the Stars" number -- as Anne swings Carlyle up and around the rafters of the empty tent -- truly manages to utilize the circus space in any inventive way.

But "The Greatest Showman" is admirably uncynical in its aims: it just wants to leave viewers with a smile on their face, and that earns the film a certain amount of goodwill. If you're a musical fan who doesn't mind a heaping helping of cheese with your entertainment, there's bound to be something under this big top you'll be able to enjoy.


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