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Movie Talk

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I saw The Greatest Showman and am surprised this didn't get more attention right out of the box. True it was going up against some big films, and a film purportedly about PT Barnum wasn't likely to stand out to many as a must-see (although it was really only very loosely about Barnum, as it was mostly about message and spectacle, not a biography). But I find the movie has incredible earworms.

The music was good, the dance numbers were great, the costuming and set design was eye catching, and the story, while rather point to point, was nonetheless fine for a movie that was about the "show" and a celebration of lowbrow entertainment. And it had one truly amazing number.

All along the villains of the story are snooty highbrow society people, whom Barnum in particular is desperate to have validate him. At the same time his shows, which relied on the misery of those society rejected, brought a sense of validation for people even lower down the societal ladder from him.

In fact that's something I found quite interesting, as this is the perfect era for these messages –- the empowerment of minorities, and the celebration of mindless entertainment. At the same time the fact that it is musical theater is a bit ironic given that the biggest musical theater success of the last 20 years is currently unaffordable for almost anyone, and even most of the people who can see it are generally waiting some time to get to do so. Theater in general has become the domain of the elite in a way it was not in the 1800s when it was generally still considered disreputable. But these messages were likely to land well with the stereotypical audience for musicals.

In finding out more about the film's origins, I was intrigued by the fact that it was created as a showcase for Jackman as a song and dance man (and built around his charisma more than his talent). That it then morphed into this message for the disempowered is rather fascinating and, I suspect, more a matter of making Barnum look good so that the leading man can be a hero, rather than the problematic person he was.

The creators also decided to shift the time period of the story from the mid 19th century, when events actually took place, to the late 1800s when we are about to make a shift into the 20th century. In fact the passage of time itself is not acknowledged, as Barnum's two young daughters remain the same age throughout the film. The costuming and set design was loosely based on the era, using it more as inspiration than pattern. The music was decidedly modern and deliberately danceable, as it was meant from the beginning to be a visual extravaganza.

One thing jumped out at me in the "extras" which in general I'd recommend watching. There are several people talking about how the concept artwork was taken very literally in terms of design and staging in the film. Yet the artwork has various animals (such as a bear) in it which do not appear in the film. And while elephants, lions, and horses do, they appear to mostly be CGI creations. I suspect that in this day where using animals in circuses is a matter of protest, that scenes with animals were downplayed or not filmed. Although if anything, Barnum suggests how far down the list animal welfare would have been, given that his people were treated so badly by so many.

The extras also documented what a long journey this movie took before it got financing and was ready to begin shooting. I suspect this was more revealing about how generally risk averse Hollywood is than because there was anything challenging about the movie itself. After all it starred Jackman, one of the most well liked celebrities around; it featured a love story between Disney alums Zac Efron and Zendaya; it was very explicit about being a showcase for spectacle; and it contained no messages that could be the least bit controversial in our current time. Ever since Moulin Rouge became a big hit, I would have thought similar notions would be part of Hollywood's blueprint.

To return to the part I thought was a standout, it was the duet between Efron and Zendaya when they are singing a form of "There's a Place for Us" -- namely that they disagree about whether they could ever be accepted within society. What I liked so much about it was the staging, with Zendaya soaring around the set in her role as a trapeze artist, but also metaphorically taking Efron's role in the song. It's his argument that is soaring into imagination and improbability, while hers is grounded and realistic. Yet she's the one on the wire and he's the one who keeps trying to grab hold of her and either bring her back to earth or get pulled up along with her. I liked the way the pieces of that scene worked together.

"This is Me" is of course a rousing anthem -- how did it not win Best Song at the Oscars? I find it amazing that this successful musical was shut out of its primary category. Strangely enough it won Best Action/Adventure Film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films of all things (and yet also didn't win in the best music category). Anyway, while I enjoy musicals I've got to say this grabbed me more quickly than others I've seen. I was interested to see that my partner really enjoyed it as well as he's not much of a movie fan, and he went looking for the soundtrack after the movie ended.