Roll up, Roll up – Ladies and Gentlemen. Boys and Girls!
This is NOT the story of P T Barnum. Nor is it an accurate portrayal of how the acts in his circus (or the minorities that they represent) were treated. Not by a chalk that’s longer than a stuffed Giraffes dubiously extended neck. Once such notions have been put to one side the film can at least be viewed as a standalone fictional piece, which in many ways is preferable as the criteria becomes so much simpler. There are no ‘Whales in the room’ to worry about. On with the show…
It would be easy to say that this film is a derivative slice of money-spinning storytelling by committee. But doing so also requires acknowledgement that so are most films. All of the MGM era musicals were certainly produced under much the same conditions.
So what makes this any different to those celluloid classics?
What exactly is it that makes this feel less classy?
Firstly, there’s a sizeable lack of sincere charm on display here.
Not in the performances, but certainly within the writing and visual presentation.
Much like Barnum’s Museum of Curiosities, literally everything on display feels like it’s been ransacked from elsewhere. The script is a succession of borrowed lines (that weren’t ever that convincing to begin with) and chock-a-block with the clumsiest of exposition.
“It’s almost like someone in a studio office has said ‘Folks seem to really love that Hamilton, with its crazy contemporary beats and arrangements. Let’s jump on that by making this sound ‘hip’ and up to date”
The story feels rushed, with little to no character development. Other than Barnum, Jenny Lind and ‘The Queen of England’, I’m struggling to remember anyone’s name. I’m assuming that the Queen was Victoria. But come to think of it, I’m not sure that she was actually named. The entire arc is so wildly predictable that there’s absolutely no need to engage even a modicum of thought.
Even within the world of Musicals, where a dense plotline is often a rarity, this feels thinner than a squeezed reflection within a funhouse mirror.
There’s a brief moment where a second love interest (The aforementioned Ms Lind) is introduced that felt like it might bring some genuine trapeze level tension. Fifteen minutes later that had rapidly fizzled out with all of the gripping wonder of a misfiring flatulent squib.
I’ve always believed that the trick of a good story, much like any well performed sleight of hand, is to manipulate the audience into feeling that they are always ahead of the curve, thus allowing them to feel rewarded by their own perceived cleverness (making the complex feel simple, or the simple appear complex). Doing so allows the storyteller to introduce the occasional swerve and a climax that hopefully confounds, amazes and rewards in equal measure. Ironically, there is no such master trickery at work here.
Much like a fumbled card trick that’s performed with half the deck missing, this tale contains a continuous simplicity that never feels anything but, well, simple.
A Musical obviously requires songs. It’s generally agreed that the best songs serve to advance plot whilst fitting into the narrative seamlessly. The numbers on offer here aren’t merely stuffed with surface level ‘we shall overcome’ clichés, they frequently take the form of trope filled taxidermy, to the point of becoming completely motionless and meaningless.
It’s almost like someone in a studio office has said “Folks seem to really love that Hamilton, with its crazy contemporary beats and arrangements. Let’s jump on that by making this sound ‘hip’ and up to date”. Misguidedly overlooking that what makes Hamilton so contagious (along with several other contemporary shows) is the depth of craft, wit and intelligence that’s been put into the lyrical structure.
Either that or there’s a concept of attempting to use contemporary songs to illustrate just how ‘ahead of his time’ Barnum was.
But this isn’t Barnum, and these songs are way too insipid to be successful in achieving that aim.
What we’re left with mostly sounds like every blandly formulaic pop song from the last decade or so. Seriously, the majority of these tunes could soundtrack a multitude of insultingly ‘aspirational’ commercials and not feel out of place.
So, that leaves us with the cinematography. I suppose that I could give some plaudits for the jump cutting, ‘bullet time’ slow motion, daring camera angles, costumes and the general freshness of the whiz-bang visual delivery.
The only thing is, all of these techniques have already been employed in everything from The Matrix to Moulin Rouge. They’re so ubiquitous that they’ve even be used in a commercial for BBC Music! (Which was at least sound tracked by one of the best songs ever written).
Almost everything on show here felt mimicked and mimed, much like watching a tediously lengthy and wildly unfocussed pop video.
I guess that I can at least say that the visuals matched the level of originality contained within the script and songs.
You’d think that after all of this ranting that I hated the film.
I really didn’t, as the whole affair was simply not interesting enough to hate.
I was mostly just bored and came away slightly disappointed with how little I’d learned.
Unless I count finding out that Elephants will look forlornly at burning buildings.
They were possibly just mourning the Whale that was boiling to death in the basement, neatly out of view.
Written by Ian Warde for @MTAS_Official