The Greatest Showman opens with an intricate, dazzling musical number featuring trapeze artists, fire breathers, dancers, lions, elephants, horses marching with feather plumes on their heads, and Hugh Jackman, resplendent in a red jacket and top hat, twirling his cane and belting the title tune. When the song ends, it turns out that it was all a daydream by a young Phineas Taylor Barnum as he stares through a shop window at a mannequin dressed in epaulettes and tails. The opening number, as all good opening numbers do, clues us in to how the rest of this movie-musical is going to go: It makes about as much sense as a dream, yet you leave with a vague feeling that you just saw something wonderful.
There’s an easy comparison to make between The Greatest Showman and P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Barnum’s real-life circus — which was more like a freak show — promised wonders that turned out to be hoaxes for a populace hungry for entertainment that was new, different, and exciting. He’s the man who famously never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” His business was show business, and if that meant toeing the line between ringmaster and swindler, so be it.
But that’s not quite what’s happening here.
The Greatest Showman is a wildly idealized take on Barnum’s humble beginnings that touts itself as an uplifting story about the importance of family, believing in yourself, celebrating your differences, friendship, love, and racial inclusivity. There’s a lot going on. And barely any of it is historically accurate. Barnum did run a circus, he did purchase Scudder’s American Museum in 1841, and he did accompany the opera singer Jenny Lind on her tour of the states. But Zac Efron’s character, Phillip Carlyle, is made up (the Bailey of Barnum & Bailey never shows), and Jackman looks nothing like the actual P.T. Barnum. Many of the historical details, such as the first person Barnum ever put on exhibition — a nearly blind and paralyzed slave woman named Joice Heth he claimed was over 100 years old and owned by George Washington himself — are completely removed from the story. It’s a safe, family-friendly picture book version of events that were much less savory than this movie-musical ever tries to reckon with.
That said, it’s also beautiful. The movie is handsomely shot by first-time feature director Michael Gracey, an Aussie commercial director and visual effects artist. There are moments where the camera dips and swirls, like during Efron and Zendaya’s romantic duet they sing while swinging through the air barely attached to trapeze ropes hanging from the ceiling. It’s the most hilariously dangerous love song I’ve ever witnessed in a musical, but it’s also kind of exhilarating.