The Greatest Showman reviews fall for the razzle-dazzle, but not much else
According to critics, The Greatest Showman lives up to its subject, P.T. Barnum, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
With a headlining role from Hugh Jackman and music from Oscar-winning La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, The Greatest Showman paints a portrait of Barnum as a dream seeker looking to bust out of his humble life to achieve something grand. What that becomes is a troupe of oddities — including Tony winner Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady — that will come to establish the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The film delivers “a lavish candybox musical bursting with broad strokes, bright colors, and bearded ladies,” writes EW’s Leah Greenblatt. But if you’re looking for more subtlety or impactful character development, “The Greatest Showman hasn’t come to linger on that kind of self-reflection; it’s too busy delivering great spectacle, and a lot of swirly, shiny humbug.”
Other critics agree that, while The Greatest Showman will dazzle you with “the sawdust and sequins,” “the CGI acrobatics,” and the “impresario” that is Jackman as Barnum, the true joy of the film will come about if you accept “the dizzy pleasure of letting yourself be hoodwinked.” If not, it’ll be a slog.
Directed by Michael Gracey, primarily known for his commercial and music video work, the film also features performances from Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, and Michelle Williams.
Read more reviews below.
Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly)
“The movie never quite stops feeling like Moulin Rouge! written in extra-large block font, or Broadway projected straight onto a big screen, which certainly isn’t bad news if that’s exactly what you love. Though it doesn’t help that the 49-year-old Jackman, one of the most charming men in two hemispheres, is asked to play roughly half his age for nearly half the movie — or that Williams isn’t given much to do besides twirl and nod and smile sweetly, unless she’s frowning sweetly. There must have been real collateral damage from the kind of single-minded ambition that drove a man like Barnum, but there’s nothing here that a tip of his top hat and a step-ball-change can’t seem to smooth over by the next scene.”
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“The Greatest Showman is a good old-fashioned wholesome PG musical that is also a scintillatingly flashy — and woke! — immersion in up-to-the-minute razzmatazz. It takes the life of P.T. Barnum, the anything-goes circus impresario of the 1800s, who is played with irresistible effervescence by Hugh Jackman, and turns him into a saintly huckster-maestro who invented the spirit of modern showbiz by daring to follow his dream. At the same time, the film takes Barnum’s infamous believe-it-or-not attractions — Tom Thumb, Dog Boy, Tattoo Man, the Bearded Lady — and makes them over into sensitive enlightened outcasts, a kind of 19th-century freak-show gallery of identity politics. How piously anachronistic is that? Very. Yet The Greatest Showman wants to give you a splashy good time, and does, and it’s got something that takes you by surprise: a genuine romantic spirit.”
David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
“The sawdust and sequins are laid on thick, the period flashbulbs pop and the champagne flows in The Greatest Showman, yet this ersatz portrait of American big-top tent impresario P.T. Barnum is all smoke and mirrors, no substance. It hammers pedestrian themes of family, friendship and inclusivity while neglecting the fundaments of character and story. First-time director Michael Gracey exposes his roots in commercials and music videos by shaping a movie musical whose references go no further back than Baz Luhrmann. And despite a cast of proven vocalists led with his customary gusto by Hugh Jackman, the interchangeably generic pop songs are so numbingly overproduced they all sound like they’re being performed off-camera.”
Robert Abele (The Wrap)
“Has there ever been a movie more hopelessly insecure about its ability to entertain, to matter, to hold your interest, to keep you tap-tap-tapping, than The Greatest Showman? A fidgety, shallow musical with postures instead of characters and anthems instead of tunes, it purports to inspire with the rags-to-riches story of winking 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), curator of performing animals, mythic humans, and — drum roll, please — dreams. Yet its empty, loud breathlessness is the real bunk to behold: think trailer for a movie more than movie itself. Or more accurately, think teaser to the trailer to the movie. It’s a broken record of ersatz positivity and empowerment, practically shout-singing at you to be all you can be while it mostly just is what it is, plastic flash without any enduring oomph.”
Stephanie Merry (The Washington Post)
“Will you buy any of this? Not really. In part, that’s because everything about the movie feels artificial, from the singers’ blatantly Auto-Tuned voices to the CGI acrobatics. The song-and-dance numbers are clearly meant to wow, but technology drains away some of their awesomeness. ‘Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?’ Barnum is asked, at one point, by his nemesis (a newspaper critic, naturally). It’s hard not to apply the question to the film itself. Always quick with a comeback, Barnum retorts, ‘Do the smiles seem fake?’ He makes a good point, and it’s almost enough to give the movie a pass. After all, there are certainly joys to be had, from Settle’s big, heart-rending number ‘This Is Me’ (recently nominated for a Golden Globe for best original song) to an amusing duet in which Barnum and his partner attempt to drink each other under the table. (What’s that you say about Barnum being a teetotaler? Give it up already.)”
Jason Zinoman (The New York Times)
“The Greatest Showman, a montage sequence that occasionally turns into a movie musical, steers clear of any contemporary resonance and ignores meaty themes. The first-time director Michael Gracey achieves an aggressively synthetic style through kinetic editing and tidy underdog stories, but none of the true joy of pulling a fast one. It’s a standard-issue holiday biopic, one that tells a story about a populist entertainer hungry for highbrow respect, the joys of showbiz and the price of ambition. An amusement park version of P.T. Barnum is fine, as far as that goes, but if you are going to aim for family-friendly fun, you need to get the fun part right.”
Justin Chang (The Los Angeles Times)
“There’s pleasure to be had in falling for a good hustle, and from time to time Gracey’s movie offers a reasonable facsimile of that pleasure. It has bright colors and high spirits, and it’s held together by a song score (from the Oscar-winning La La Land duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) whose creamy-vanilla smoothness is as insipid as it is hard to resist. You don’t believe what the filmmakers are selling for an instant, but at times you can almost believe they believe it themselves.”
David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“The Greatest Showman is all about the dizzy pleasure of letting yourself be hoodwinked, and it’s a testament to the movie’s idiosyncratic appeal that it never loses its power to lower your defenses and take your breath away. Distilling all of his film’s disparate themes into the stuff of raw emotion, Gracey has crafted a wildly ridiculous spectacle that functions as an ode to wildly ridiculous spectacles, a movie that doesn’t care what you feel so long as you don’t feel like asking for your money back. In other words, this bonkers delight is so in love with its own bullshit that P.T. Barnum would be thrilled to lend it his name.”
Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair)
“If you start your big musical movie with a song called ‘The Greatest Show,’ you’re setting up some pretty big expectations. One could almost call it hubris, though that word suggests a kind of aggro arrogance. The Greatest Showman—the new movie musical which houses ‘The Greatest Show’—is slightly more humble than that. The film may be a vessel for some noxious, platitudinous cynicism, but there’s nevertheless something still quaint about it. It mostly just wants you to have a nice time, it insists; to feel cheered and uplifted as a big, lumbering elephant carries us off a cliff. Which isn’t to say the movie is good. It isn’t, really. The Greatest Showman—about P.T. Barnum putting together the first modern circus—is a labor of love for its star, huggable old Hugh Jackman, who has been trying to get this film made for the better part of a decade. So I feel a little bad using my sharpest words to cut it down, but such are the pains of my profession. Still, it’s by no means a total wash.”
The Greatest Showman is now playing in theaters.