A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Greatest Showman is a biographical musical from the songwriters of La La Land that stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, who starts out as a penniless orphan but becomes the world-renowned creator of the circus. There's a bit of language ("damn," the racial slur "spooks," "oh God!," etc.) and violence (protesters burn down the circus, a man slaps a young boy), as well as some drama surrounding the movie's interracial romance, which was taboo at the time. But overall the plot and songs are easy enough for tweens to follow -- and with Zendaya and Zac Efron co-starring, the movie is likely to appeal to them. Although it's based on factual events, the movie only covers a short period in Barnum's life and glosses over certain aspects of his career. It's not garnering the same kind of acclaim as La La Land, but The Greatest Showman's charming leads and circus scenes should make it a fun pick for families who enjoy history, musical theater, and, of course, the circus.
What's the story?
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a biographical musical about young Phineas T. Barnum's life as a child, entrepreneur, museum owner, circus producer, and entertainment producer. As a young boy, Phineas "Finn" (Ellis Rubin), the son of a tailor, meets Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father's wealthy clients. He makes her laugh and earns a slap from her father for it, but the spark between them lasts throughout their adolescence, even while she's away at boarding school and he's an orphan in the streets. Years later, Finn and Charity (now played by Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams) marry and have two girls. He manages to secure a loan to open up a museum of oddities, and when that starts to fail, he's inspired by a brief encounter with a little person to invite unusual-looking folks -- including bearded lady Letty Lutz (Keala Settle), Tom Thumb (Sean Humphrey), and black brother-and-sister trapeze artists W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) -- to join a show focused around them. With a little embellishment from costumes and makeup, he opens what will become the first circus. Although Barnum's show is critically panned, the masses love it. He earns a fortune, but Barnum can't stop looking for approval from the upper crust.
Is it any good?
Exuberant performances propel this musical biopic, which isn't perfect but does occasionally delight thanks to its stellar cast, led by the inimitable Jackman. There's inherent value in watching the talented Jackman sing and dance, and he's an ideal fit for playing the titular "greatest showman" on earth. The Greatest Showman doesn't delve into some of the uglier aspects of Barnum's life (like all the hoaxes he was accused of committing), but it does manage to entertain audiences with catchy original songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the award-winning lyricists for La La Land and the Tony-winning Broadway sensation Dear Evan Hansen.
The soundtrack is in many ways more remarkable than the movie itself, with showstopping anthems like Jackman's "The Greatest Show" and "A Million Dreams" and the romantic "Rewrite the Stars" -- a lovely duet by Efron and Zendaya. The songs will stay in your head long after the credits roll, but the plot is unevenly paced. It rushes through the buildup of the Barnums' love story and sugarcoats seedy 19th-century New York to the point that it's not really recognizable as Manhattan. It's best to appreciate the film as a flashy, colorful Broadway show, where the "book" is less important than the musical numbers.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about telling a fact-based biographical story as a musical. What makes this approach appealing? Who do you think the target audience is?
What do you think of the Barnum quote used in The Greatest Showman: "The noblest art is that of making others happy"? Do you think Barnum accomplished that?
How do you think Barnum treated his performers? Was it fair? Is he a role model? Why has the circus become a controversial form of entertainment in more recent decades?
How accurate do you think the movie is? Why might filmmakers change the facts in movies that are based on real events? How could you find out more about Barnum's life?
Why is Anne and Phillip's relationship controversial? How have things changed since the time the movie takes place?
- In theaters: December 20, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: April 10, 2018
- Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya
- Director: Michael Gracey
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
- Genre: Musical
- Topics: History, Music and Sing-Along
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements including a brawl
- Awards/Honors: Golden Globe
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