Many biopics often do one of two things: they either exaggerate their subject's flaws or soften their edges, rarely giving a truly accurate portrayal. The Greatest Showman probably goes farther in the latter direction than any movie I've ever seen. P.T. Barnum is transformed from a cynical businessman to a woke entertainer, champion of the downtrodden and protector of animals. He's almost Jesus in a top hat and tails. Sure, maybe he's a little vain and occasionally puts his work before his family, but this version of Barnum (as played by Hugh Jackman) is about as noble as they come.
After getting laid off from his job, Barnum invests his family's savings in purchasing a museum of oddities from around the world. But when business doesn't boom, he turns to the freaks of society for a new showcase. Again, in this (heavily fictionalized) version, they're not treated as a sideshow but as the beloved cast of an important production.
This is ridiculous, but the movie makes up for it with a lot of catchy numbers. They're written by the duo who came up with the lyrics for the songs in La La Land, but there's nothing quite that good here. Still, they're fun enough that they're likely to worm their way into your brain. (I've had "This Is Me" stuck in my head all week.)
The performances are good, but never exceptional. The direction is fine, but never truly special. I kept wondering how spectacular this could have been with someone like Baz Luhrmann at the helm. But the movie never gets weighed down, even as one subplot in particular appears tacked on.
I'm talking about the romance between its hot young stars Zac Efron and Zendaya. Both have been charming separately, but here they have absolutely zero chemistry. Their romance just isn't believable, and certainly would not have been possible in late 1800s New York. I lost count of how many times Efron – and other characters – said some variation on "I don't care what they think." It's a nice sentiment, but it gets hammered home in nearly every scene.
Yet the movie is so nice, so cheerful, its characters so indefatigable that it's impossible to hate. The Greatest Showman certainly isn't the best gift at the movies this Christmas, but you'll enjoy it all the same.