This Broadway-style musical biopic, set mainly in mid-19th century United States, depicts the story of the legendary Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (Hugh Jackman) – the founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and of the showbusiness in general. We see his rise and struggle from poverty and shaming when he was young, to becoming the first and “greatest showman”.
It sets up Jackman’s Barnum as the once-unprivileged outcast, shown kindness by the rejects of society, and who then becomes a saint of sorts (not a perfect one, as the film goes on to rightly reveal) to these social outcasts and offers them a chance at stardom – no matter the obligatory perception of fraudulence and fakery on Barnum’s part.
Passionate, warm and bold in every sense, the film starts off with explosive, pulse-pounding music right from the opening, transitioning immediately (and dramatically) when its silent film format turns into a colourful vibrant musical number. This sets the stage for circus excitement that gets you in the mood for a vivaciously swinging spectacle.
It’s almost like a Broadway production brought directly to life on screen.
The rest plays out effortlessly, never seeming to lose its fast pace, even at the most poignant moments.
Most evidently illustrated in the film are its many dominant themes. Among them are acceptance, tolerance, 19th century discrimination, conservatism, being unafraid of who you are, not judging a book by its cover and being fearless to dream with an unfettered imagination for self and others.
These are powerful messages that will make you ponder each unique individual’s purpose in this world.
There is also the underlying idea here that the circus is not really a place for the misfits and “freaks” of society, as typified by the condescending crowd, but rather a sanctuary of talent and belonging.
Although veteran thespian Jackman steals the limelight, almost all the actors and actresses (even some of the minor ones) are standouts in their own right. Even Zac Efron shows off his performing skills, proving his High School Musical years have not been lost.
The music, songs, singing, dancing, storytelling and even costuming are almost straight out of a Broadway musical, a telling sign of how well the film was put together.