The Greatest Showman (PG) **

Dir: Michael Gracey
With: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson
Runtime: 105 minutes

PT Barnum loved show business and show business has loved him right back, with films, musicals and books galore about the circus master.
The impresario behind General Tom Thumb and a mermaid with the head of a monkey certainly knew the value of giving the public something new. As such he might have sympathised with any modern movie maker trying to tell his story for the umpteenth time.
But even the king of cornball, the sultan of sunny side up, might have baulked at what they’ve done with the song and dance of his life, ma, in this lethally bland musical drama. The man with a talent for making the public gawp has been given an America’s Got Talent makeover and his political incorrectness corrected. The results were enough to leave this viewer slack-jawed in amazement, and not in a good way.
Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, a move that makes one warm to Michael Gracey’s picture immediately. The star of Les Mis has form in fronting top-flight festive season musicals, and with Bill Condon (Chicago) one of the writers, what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, as we see from the opening song, a modern, poppy, middle of the road number. Music at odds with the period setting is not to all tastes – see the howls which greeted Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – but the dancing, too, is stompy, aggressive, straight outta a pop video stuff.
Save for the odd, quieter number, such as the one which accompanies the story of Barnum’s lifelong romance with wife Charity (Michelle Williams), the music stays in the pop mould, eventually settling on the kind of ear-bashing power ballads that would not be out of place 
in a TV talent show. Most of the time, one feels less caressed by the songs 
than assaulted.
The power ballads, with their “take me as I am” lyrics, suit the picture’s modern take on Barnum: that he gave a home, and jobs, to those who would otherwise be shunned by society. But he did so to make money out of them, something the picture nods to but does not acknowledge nearly enough.
Likewise, the use of animals in his museum and shows does not figure here as largely as it did in reality. In keeping with modern sensibilities which rightly abhors keeping wild animals in captivity and forcing them to do tricks, the fantastic beasts here are of the CGI variety and their appearances are kept to a minimum.
So Gracey plods through a big picture look at Barnum’s life, tracing his path from museum of curiosities to backing the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) on a successful tour. 
Everything is geared towards packaging Barnum as a sort of cuddly pioneer of inclusivity, rather than the hard-nosed businessman of his times that he was. Few actors could come close to pulling this off. With his boundless enthusiasm, his Broadway standard singing and dancing, and his sheer likeability, Jackman does a better job than perhaps anyone else would have. If you are a fan, he is reason enough to see the picture. Williams, too, is her usual gentle, lovely and engaging self as Charity, the wife who wonders if anything will ever be enough for her ambitious dreamer of a husband.
It is Jackman’s talent, as seen Les Mis, that points to the other problem with the film. Les Mis, controversially at the time, had the actors singing live. Sometimes, as with Russell Crowe, this made for a rough and ready rendition. Mostly, as in any Jackman number or Anne Hathaway singing I Dreamed a Dream, the results were electrifying. In the Greatest Showman, in contrast, the songs sound flat and lifeless in delivery, adding to the sanitised feel of the film overall.
Jackman and Williams aside, the film’s other starry pairing is Zac Efron and Zendaya. He plays a rich white promoter and she is the black trapeze artist with whom he falls in love, much to scandalised society’s ire. A number they share is one of the loveliest things in the picture, largely due to the clever choreography but mostly because it is understated (or as understated as any routine involving two people swinging through the air can be). One fancies Barnum, for all his love of the loud and brash, would have liked that part too.

Opens Boxing Day