I'm of the opinion that Hugh Jackman should do a musical on an annual basis and that it ought to be released at Christmas time. Those pieces just fit together. Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, one of ours has been a visit to a movie theater on Christmas Day. If you are interested, here is a link to my Letterboxd List of Christmas Movies.As it turns out, there is a Hugh Jackman musical and a Zac Efron musical on the list as well. Even for a subject as grim as Les Misérables, the fact that it is a musical makes it feel more holiday appropriate.
This film is an original musical, supposedly based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Barnum did have a Museum of Oddities, and was married to a woman named charity, and did tour the singer Jenny Lind as an attraction after discovering her in Europe. Everything else is made up out of whole cloth. For dramatic purposes, the screen writers and director have gone the old school Hollywood fashion and tacked pieces of Barnum's history onto a story that they want to tell which has little to do with the biographical subject. That's OK, but Barnum had a very interesting life and was a significant public figure of the American scene in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, a hip hop musical probably needs some romantic stories to hang onto and a little social justice subtext seems to fit with the personality of the film.
First time director Michael Gracey, shows his roots as a visual effects guy, as he shoots segments of the background in slow motion and has the main figures operating at live speed. There are so many beautiful moments that it sometimes feels like a visit to the eye candy store and maybe we over indulge a little. Still, the modern dance numbers and elaborate aerial ballet look fantastic and when combined with the show stopping mood of each segment, it does feel like a series of crescendos. The dances are staged in clever ways when the ensemble is performing, you can see the contemporary influences easily. When the story focuses on a single performer at a time, the mood is a little more traditional although the songs never are.
Jackman and Efron are joined by several performers who stand out. Zendaya is an actress/dancer who was recently seen in "Spider Man Homecoming". She actually performs the acrobatics in the film and as the love interest and face of victimization from racism in the last century, she makes a solid impression. Keala Settle is a singer with some stage experience, but her voice and demeanor as the bearded lady in Barnum's show, belie any masculinity and show the toughness that a woman and a so-called freak would need to have. Michelle Williams is always solid and her part here was enhanced with some singing and dancing that seems to extend her range even more. Rebecca Ferguson plays the song bird Jenny Linn, and although her singing voice is dubbed, her performance on stage will make you a believer as it did the audiences in the film.
So the movie looks amazing, the music is inspiring, the story is mostly nonsense but the heart of the film is what matters. Hugh Jackman for years has wanted to do a film featuring P.T. Barnum as a character. He seems to have put his heart into this movie and it shows. Modern Audiences would certainly flock to this if it were a stage show and was performed on Broadway. Movie audiences on the other hand are more fickle and less likely to embrace this until it has an established reputation. Expect this to be a widely loved cult film among cinema fans in about five years. As for me, although it is apocryphal that P.T. Barnum said "there is a sucker born every minute", I'm with the newspaper man from "The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance", "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I'm a sucker for musicals and show business stories, so I can say I loved this piece of catnip and I hope you will go out and see it.