Despite the fact that Cap spends much of his time thinking and writing about film, we surprisingly don’t see many movies in theaters. But we Redbox! And sometimes, I have Thoughts. Are they timely thoughts, on trend with what everyone else is blogging about? Nope.
Thus, I here begin a new “series” that will be scattered amidst my other posts: the “Belated Thoughts” series, with hopes that they may be of interest to people who have previously seen these films or are rewatching them at home. My first Belated Thoughts: The Greatest Showman.
Before I continue, may I say, “We KNOW.” We KNOW P. T. Barnum wasn’t a good guy. Everyone who loves the film is tired of you pointing it out like the people who feel the need to remind us that “Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25.” (We know that, too.) While we’re at it, the moon isn’t really as big as it is in “A Million Dreams,” and you can’t really park an elephant at the theater. These elements establish this movie as fantasy: alternate reality, using Barnum’s name and general circumstances, kind of like Moulin Rouge did for Moulin Rouge or like Arthurian legend did for an ancient Briton king who may or may not have existed. I, for one, am happy to accept that.
OF FALSE EXPECTATIONS
The trailer of the film highlights the diversity of Barnum’s circus “oddities” to the tune of “This Is Me,” Keala Settle’s awesome power ballad. This led me to believe that the important, but simple message of this movie would be “Diversity is good!” I didn’t mind a simple message. The movie looked fun.
So, I was expecting more emphasis on each performer’s journey of deciding to join the circus, with “This is Me” being the climactic “Let It Go” moment when they all finally accept who they are. Not the case. The performers all hesitate about half a second before joining up. The circus has already been formed at the beginning of Act 2.
I felt rushed, unbalanced. What was the movie about if it wasn’t the performers?
It turns out that though the circus oddities are not the main focus, the performers are still thematically integral. They function as an admirable foil, a contrast that has just enough similarity to highlight the distinct qualities of the protagonist. The performers foil P. T. Barnum. His arc is the point.
ON BARNUM’S ARC (FOILER ALERT)
Barnum is a victim in his childhood: belittled constantly by his father, surviving hungry in the streets, enduring years of backbreaking labor to earn enough to support his wife—but still not enough to earn his in-laws’ approval. His journey mirrors the performers’: “Our own mothers were ashamed of us,” says Lettie.
Barnum’s nuclear family, however, is a stunningly attractive picture of love and contentment. His wife and daughters delight in him and one another, despite sideways glances from disapproving snobs. This, too, is like the performers, who find purpose and love in supporting each other. The circus has become their family, and they use that very term to describe it.
Thus, Barnum’s family and the circus family are traveling the same trajectory—until they don’t.
The victimization that shaped Barnum’s childhood would be enough to influence anyone’s perceptions and goals. And his own clear statement of intent confirms this: “My father was treated like dirt. I was treated like dirt. My children won’t be.” But Barnum is so wrapped up in his goal that he gives himself license to, however unwittingly, become like the very people who hurt him the most.
It’s all too common: the son of an alcoholic turns to alcohol or the abused daughter becomes abusive herself. I’ve seen it in my own life, letting betrayals or rejections from my peers turn me cowardly or mean. Victims, turned inward toward their legitimate hurts, often can’t see when they are also becoming perpetrators. They’re too blinded by their impulse to escape their pain.
Barnum is finding a place for outcasts, yes. But his ignoble goal—to prove his own place in society, escaping his past—makes him willing to cheat and use people to do it.
“Never Enough,” like every other song in The Greatest Showman, is a visual and lyrical reflection on a theme. The tension of the character placement is illustrative: Barnum stands apart from both the circus family and his own family. He stares at Jenny Lind, who stands in blinding lights. For him, Lind is a symbol of high-class acceptance. The circus performers, shoved to the back as Barnum’s motivations become clear, stand in solidarity. Barnum’s wife, despite her plea to “let me be part of it all,” is relegated to the place of spectator, not participant in her husband’s victory. Barnum is abandoning all that matters—not one, but two families he has created—to chase the rising fame that he thinks will end his victimhood.
“This Is Me” is the song the circus performers sing just after Barnum rejects them (like he was once rejected) in favor of Lind and what she represents. Lettie’s power ballad is the antithesis to the “Never Enough” song of Barnum’s heart. “Never Enough” is a solo, about only one person’s dreams: “Never enough / For me.” Like the victim curved in on his own pain, it is inward-focused. “This Is Me,” far from the brazen individualism you could ascribe to its lyrics out of context, is a group song: “I know there’s a place for us”; “We are bursting through the barricades.” Lettie no longer lets her hurt isolate her from others.
More than that, “This Is Me” powerfully shows the right reaction to being a victim, against Barnum’s flawed “solution.” Its place, following the aftermath of “Never Enough” (in which Barnum literally shuts a door in their faces), invites viewers to note the contrast. Instead of pursuing any means necessary to escape their victimhood, like Barnum, the performers accept that it is part of who they are, to be owned and integrated, not somehow left behind: “I am brave, / I am bruised, / I am who I’m meant to be; / This is me.”
Of course, Barnum’s arc has farther to go. As E. Stephen Burnett says in his analysis, this film completely sticks the landing, but you need to watch and see for yourself to know fully what I mean.
OF SPOILERS AND NUANCE
But when Barnum (spoiler alert) does reject show business to go back to his family, the film doesn’t jump for the easy polarity of “Fame=bad!” Barnum passes the baton (or top hat) to Phillip Carlyle (Efron), for whom the circus is emphatically the right place to be—because it holds the beginning of his own family, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). And it’s the right place for the performers, because the circus is their family.
In a movie “covered in all the colored lights,” where every scene is all the spectacle an ideal movie should be, it’s surprising—and powerful—that family is the most attractive picture it offers. The Greatest Showman is powerful, and cool, and dang fun to watch, and it all ultimately funnels down to this theme. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” says the movie’s end quote. In the context of the film, the most important others are not adoring crowds, but the people “right in front of you”: your family.