by Zuha Jaffar
Despite his circus closing in May 2017, P.T. Barnum remains lodged in the people’s imagination because of his ability to blur the line between reality and fiction in his circus. Recently, people have been reminded of P.T. Barnum’s “greatness” from the movie The Greatest Showman, which is a movie that occasionally decides it’s a musical while ignoring a majority of the huge themes presented. The movie isn’t terrible, but it definitely glamorizes Barnum and his life (which is just fine if that is what you are looking for).
The Greatest Showman follows the story of P.T. Barnum and how he created the Barnum and Bailey Circus, beginning with his hard life at a young age. He was the son of a tailor, who died when Barnum was young. However, the movie doesn’t waste any time on his early life, success comes quick to Barnum right after he begins to collect “freaks” that he puts on display in his circus. Barnum then begins to hire elites (Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron) and opera singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson). His “star attractions” end up turning into a group of misfits, with minimal backgrounds behind the star of attractions. We then watch how P.T. Barnum becomes obsessed with fame, realizes his mistake, and fixes everything (by singing a song).
There are a few things that the movie does right. I’ve watched it three times, with three different groups of people, all of whom had different opinions. However, each time I left the theater, filled with a childlike hope, which made me want to watch it again. Immediately after watching it for the first time, I was infatuated. I loved the music and fell in love with how gleeful it was. I also happened to be sitting in the front row, so everything that was happening was right in my face, it would be hard to not become obsessed. Then I watched it two more times, and each time, my love for it diminished.
The main dilemma with this whole movie is that it completely glamorizes P.T. Barnum’s life. After watching the movie, I went home to research Barnum, expecting at least the basis of what I had seen in the movie to be true. Unfortunately, everything I found pointed me away from this man who was painted as so great. P.T. Barnum loved to exploit anyone who was different. He would exhibit things like “strange and savage tribes” that would just consist of indigenous people wearing costumes. He would also showcase African Americans with birth defects to affirm their “racial inferiority.” He created ethnic stereotypes and casted off a whole part of humanity, calling them “different.” Even though Barnum said, “the noblest art is that of making others happy,” is it still okay to do it at the expense of others and humanity?
Another smaller problem with the movie is that many themes are presented, which the whole movie doesn’t do justice. We see love, what it’s like to be different, what’s fake and real, but the whole movie just didn’t follow through with them, fully. Now, if they did, the movie would also be way too long, but maybe if it had stuck with one or two themes and followed through, then maybe the movie would be just a little less empty.
This movie is perfect to watch with your family over winter break, as something fun and small. But, if you’re looking for something real and whole, then this movie really isn’t for you. Or maybe I’m just too cynical to enjoy a fun, family movie.