Released 26th December
Seen 28th December
Directed by Michael Gracey
Written by Jenny Bicks & Bill Condon
Produced by Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment & Twentieth Century Fox
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya & Keala Settle
This should have been the easiest 10 that I’ve ever handed out in my life. It’s Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron starring in an original musical about PT Barnum. The possibilities are endless for how amazing this could be, it should’ve blown me away by the end of the first number and had me screaming for more at the very end, humming the tunes all the way home… instead, I walked out going “Meh” and humming exactly none of the songs that appeared in this musical. Here I am, typing this out roughly 2 hours after having left the cinema and I’ll be damned if I could hum a single bar of any song other than “This Is Me”, and I can only recall that one because every goddamn trailer for this movie has that song in it. For comparison, as I’m writing this I’ve looked up songs from the stage show Barnum and guess what? Those songs are fun and more memorable, why wasn’t this just an adaptation of Barnum? I’m pretty sure that would’ve worked better than what you have here
One big issue with this film is how they decide to play PT Barnum, because there are varying ways people remember him. Some see him as a success story, others as an exploitative hack. Depending on who you talk too you’ll get a good argument for either version and an interesting film could be made out of a guy who creatively lies his way to the top or a film about a guy who exploits desperate people to achieve fame. Sure, one would be a much darker film, but both could be interesting ways to play PT Barnum… we get neither one here. We get a guy who just seems to luck his way to the top and claims to sell lies but never seems to actually lie, which is weird because that’s a running gag throughout this film. The idea that everyone is aware that Barnum is a huckster is something they call him on, repeatedly. Every character laughs at how much of a liar he is but it’s never embraced properly by the film itself. We get one truly great lie right at the beginning that allows him to get the loan that’ll start his career but for the life of me, I can’t think of another lie he tells in this movie. If you’re going to tell a story about one of the greatest liars in history, I’m going to need him to lie. Have him lie his way into meeting the queen, instead of just knowing the right person at the right time and somehow not be thrown out when General Tom Thumb insults her. Oh, speaking of General Tom Thumb, I’m also going to need a better freak show. This films idea of what a freak is can be described best as ‘laughable’, especially after American Horror Story showed us an actual freak show on television. We now know how extreme you can push this so do we get anything really out there? No, instead, we just get a lot of excessively hairy people, one short person and Zendaya with pink hair… that’s it. I’m sorry but if you’re going to do this, then give me full Todd Browning Freaks or don’t bother. Yeah, some of these are based on real people but come on, they already took enough creative licence so why not go for it?
Plot-wise this film feels rushed. It feels like setups for certain scenes are missing and certain moments are just powered through really quickly so we can get to the next song, we have 11 numbers to get through in this 105-minute musical, we don’t have time to actually show character motivation beyond the broadest of broad strokes. We don’t have time to set up that someone planned something, we only have time to show the plan failing. We don’t have time to maybe flesh out some of the relationships, we have an acrobatic aerial number to get too. An extra 20 minutes to the runtime wouldn’t have killed the movie, it might’ve helped me care more about the characters and not made the ending of the film feel as rushed as it does. It’s so rushed that it becomes hard to get invested in the characters relationships, something that we need to do for this kind of story to work.
Zac Efron really get’s the short end of the stick here which sucks because this was his big return to musicals, he hadn’t been in one since 2008 and this is what he returns for? He comes back to play a guy named Phillip Carlyle. Yeah, not James Bailey as you should probably expect since Zac’s character is Barnum’s partner in the film, he’s actually composite character made up of several people… Phillip Carlyle never actually existed. How hard is it to make Zac into James Bailey? Yeah, Bailey might not be that young… PT Barnum didn’t look like Hugh Jackman, pretty confident you could have made this work by naming him Bailey. As for the musical numbers, Zac still has it. I might not remember the lyrics to his big number with Hugh Jackman, but I remember that he sang it fine and it was really nice seeing the two of them bounce off each other and dance up a storm, the two of them work well together throughout the film but we only get one song that’s just them and… come on, really? You can’t give me another Barnum & Carlyle number? Same with Zac and Zendaya’s number, it might not have memorable lyrics but got the choreography on that one was spectacular. I hope Zac does another musical soon, preferably a better one (Heck, I keep hearing rumours that Book of Mormon‘s going to be a film. Make him Elder Price, boom, movie funded and done)
Looking through the soundtrack list on IMDB is a shock to the system because I see each title and all I think is “Wait, that was a song? When?”. Remember, I exited a cinema 2 hours ago, I can’t remember any song that isn’t This Is Me… but, there’s a reason for that. Keala Settle is the one who steals this movie out from under everyone. Her performance is the highlight and deserves not only praise but to be showered with awards left right and centre. She sells every scene she has and I swear if all she was doing was acting then it’d be amazing but when she get’s a chance to belt out a number… oh boy. Apparently, in order to get the film greenlit they had to hold a workshop and I’ve seen the video of Keala Settle performing that song, If they greenlit it based entirely on her performance of this one song then I get how this film got greenlit because she is a revelation and could get any musical on the planet turned into a movie if she sang one song from it for producers. Have her sing “And Eve Was Weak” from Carrie: The Musical, I promise you we’d have the film of it by Halloween. She is incredible and even if the film didn’t affect me as much as it could’ve, she did and she is worth the price of admission alone. Her big number is the one that’s got the Golden Globe nomination and I will be legitimately shocked if that song doesn’t win because it’s the best song in this entire film, mostly thanks to her.
It’s a shame that this show with so much potential dropped the ball so hard. What was supposed to be the easiest 10 I could’ve hoped to ever hand out based on the concept alone now seems like a waste of time and effort. It’s a film that you forget as you’re walking out of the cinema… but, while you’re in the cinema, it is enjoyable and the powerhouse performance by Keala Settle is enough to save this from the bad end of the ratings… barely.