I hate critics sometimes, especially all the sites now that accumulate all relevant reviews and process it down into a simple number. Sure, it is nice to have a simple, concise way of determining whether a film has quality or not, but some films are so much more than a number. This is how I feel about The Greatest Showman. Rotten Tomatoes has The Greatest Showman listed at a 55%, what is considered a rotten score. Metacritic lists it even lower at a 48. However, the Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes lists it at a 90%, and the IMDb user score is at 8.0/10. So which numbers do you believe? Who is right, the critics or the average moviegoer? Surprisingly, the answer for this film is both.
The Greatest Showman is a passion project for star Hugh Jackman, trying to get this film made since 2009. He stars as P.T. Barnum, a man who changed his stars, taking himself from the son of a tailor to the ringleader of the "Greatest Show on Earth." He navigates through the story with his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and a cast of circus folk (Zendaya being the most notable among the group). Zac Efron enters the story partway through as a business partner for Barnum. There isn't much to the story. Barnum risks everything on a hunch that people will pay to see the odd an unusual, and the bet pays off. As time goes on, he begins to lose sight of what was important in the first place and has to find his way back and make things right. The plot is nothing special or original in any way.
With a cast like this, it is only appropriate that they made this into a musical. This music is very modern and sounds like something you could hear on the radio today. At times it feels very mismatched with what you are watching since this story takes place in the days of horse and buggy. Jackman goes pop for the first time in his career. Efron reminds everyone for the first time since High School Musical that he can sing. Williams and Zendaya (capping off an impressive breakout year) also show their vocal ability. Rebecca Ferguson, playing the world-renowned vocalist Jenny Lind, gives an obviously dubbed performance of her lone song. The music is fun and catchy, but an overuse of auto-tuning took all the feeling and emotion out of the performances. Every song ended up sounding the same because there was no difference in the vocal styles. Why have such talented singers if you are going to auto-tune all the talent out of their voices? They even took all the vibrato out of Hugh Jackman's voice (actually that might have been a good thing...).
There is a good amount of music, however at only 105 minutes, the film leaves no time for plot and character development. Everything feels rushed, except the musical numbers. There are entire character archs that take 5 minutes to tell because that is how long they could give between musical numbers. There is a reason most musicals push 2 and a half hours. The music forces the story to take longer to tell. This film didn't do that.
So there is an unimaginative, vanilla plot that is rushed throughout the film to get to music that is ruined by auto-tune. This is why the critics don't like it. However, like I said, this is a two-sided story, and I am on both sides of the fence. Why did the audiences like it?
P.T. Barnum's entire philosophy in starting his circus was creating a show that would leave his audiences smiling. There really wasn't much to it. Several times throughout the film, especially while he is interacting with a certain theater critic, they discuss how his show is going for cheap laughs and has little substance ("Does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?"). Barnum's reaction is always that people leave happier than they were before they came ("Do these smiles seem fake?"). I feel this film tried for the same effect. It didn't really try for anything special, but it is hard to argue with the fact that is was a fun 2 hours at the movies. The music, although overly auto-tuned, is extremely catchy and fun. I have been humming the songs for days. The storyline, although basic, rushed, and unimaginative, works for the context of the film. It is as if they made a film about P.T. Barnum's circus that held to the same principals as the show Barnum created. Give the audience something that will put a smile on their face. Even the auto-tuned music puts a glossy finish on the songs that would make Barnum proud. This is why audiences love it.
So which voice do I listen to? With as many films as I have seen, it is hard to tune out the critical voice in the back of my head that is constantly reminding me this is not high quality filmmaking. At the same time, the average moviegoer in me is speaking up saying the experience of seeing the movie was too fun to ignore. Would I see it again? Probably. Quite the conundrum...
I like to be an optimist when I can. This film shouldn't get any Oscar attention (except for maybe some Original Song consideration). However, if you are looking for a good 2 hour escape to the movies that will leave a smile on your face, The Greatest Showman is definitely worth the watch. Just leave your critical hat at the door.
Watch the trailer here: