Blu-ray Review: The Greatest Showman

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The little musical that could, The Greatest Showman opened at a middling number four during a crowded, competitive Christmas 2017 weekend. These days, a weak opening almost always guarantees a quick fade into oblivion, at least until the streaming and home video market provides a shot at new life. But The Greatest Showman just kept building, remaining in the box office top 20 right up to April 1, 2018. Following its $173 million domestic gross ($420 million worldwide) and a Billboard number one soundtrack album (certified platinum by the RIAA), The Greatest Showman lands on Blu-ray via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Full disclosure: I cringed at the trailers. The idea of a P.T. Barnum biopic starring Hugh Jackman was a great one. Making it a musical? Maybe not so much, it initially seemed. Especially one of those musicals whose songs are conceived and produced with thoroughly modern aesthetics. Lo and behold, first-time director Michael Gracey winds up knocking it outta the park with a terrifically fast-paced, heartfelt, and engaging entertainment. Sure, a quick look at the most rudimentary Barnum bio demonstrates the filmmakers' penchant for playing fast and loose with facts. But the structure, however goofily scrambled from Barnum's real (and fascinating) life story, is sound, and the songs—with the exception of a few gloppy ballads—are performed and staged with real verve.

At the center of it all is Jackman, whose vocal expertise should come as a surprise to no one (Les Misérables, anyone?), who puts on a jaw-dropping display of the very brand of showmanship that would've made Barnum himself proud. Dancing, singing, and acting with all the confidence and poise of the greatest performers to grace the silver screen, Jackman puts in overtime to make it all work. We see he and his family (his wife is played by Michelle Williams, who makes the most of her big number "Tightrope") hustle to make Barnum's American Museum—basically a curiosity shop on steroids—a success. It doesn't happen until Barnum hits on a stroke of genius: round up a cast of real-life curiosities (called "freaks" in the day—remember, this is occurring mid-19th century). 
GreatestShowman_MichelleWilliams.jpg Barnum's actual promotion of blackface-based minstrel shows is left out, as are the more controversial elements of marketing (i.e. exploiting and profiting from) the display of people with various unusual conditions. Director Gracey (and screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon) choose to focus on the more positive aspects of Barnum's promotion. In real life, after going into politics, Barnum became a true progressive and champion of equal human rights. The Greatest Showman leaves that out (sequel, perhaps?), but has its heart in the right place in portraying Barnum as a philanthropic capitalist.

Again, there's plenty of fiction here. Zac Efron dusts off his High School Musical skills to terrific effect as playwright Phillip Carlyle—a composite character invented by the writers, who collaborates with Barnum. Phillip engages in a frowned-upon (at that time) interracial relationship with one of Barnum's trapeze performers, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya; if you don't recognize the name, you may remember her from Spider-Man: Homecoming).

World-renown vocalist Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson; singing voice provided by Loren Allred), who toured to great acclaim under Barnum's management, is depicted as having an affair with the married showman. But these additions generally work in the film's dramatic favor. If you want to learn more about P.T. Barnum, there are ways to easily do so. If you're looking for exciting family-friendly (PG-rating) entertainment, see The Last Showman

Fox Home Entertainment has tricked out their Blu-ray with some worthwhile bonus features (also, don't forget to crank up the DTS-HD MA 7.1 to get the most out of the music). "The Songs" is a lengthy series of featurettes that takes us inside each of the movie's tunes. "The Spectacle" is a half-hour piece focused on the choreography and overall staging. Superfans can join in with the music by watching the film in "Sing-Along" mode. A shorter featurette, "The Family Behind The Greatest Showman," features a more typical behind-the-scenes look, with lots of short cast and crew interviews. Director Michael Gracey provides an audio commentary track as well.


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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