Follow TV Tropes

Following

Film / The Greatest Showman

Go To

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/thegreatestshowman.jpg
♫ Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me. ♫
Phillip Carlyle: I can't just run off and join the circus.
P.T. Barnum: Why not? You clearly have a flair for show business.
Advertisement:

The Greatest Showman is a musical drama film loosely based on the story of American showman P.T. Barnum, founder of the circus that became the famous travelling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The film was directed by visual effects supervisor and first time director Michael Gracey, and stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. It was written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen).

The ambitious Phineas Taylor Barnum (Jackman) marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Williams). Together, they have two daughters and live a humble life. After Barnum is laid off from his job, he eventually founds Barnum's Circus, an grandiose exhibition of various "freaks" and outcasts. The show is a hit, but Barnum struggles to balance the family that built the circus with him and his desire to further his own reputation.

Advertisement:

The film was released on December 20th, 2017.


The Greatest Showman contains examples of:

  • Acrofatic: The World's Fattest Man shows some serious Belly Fu in the brawl with protesters.
  • Actor Allusion:
  • Actually Pretty Funny: When Queen Victoria blurts that General Tom Thumb is even shorter than she'd imagined, he coarsely shoots back that she's not exactly tall either. She gapes for a moment, then laughs at the riposte.
  • Advertisement:
  • Adaptation Distillation: Some of Barnum's major attractions are either left out or only hinted at, such as the infamous "mermaid". Barnum's circus animals get very little screentime (perhaps avoiding one of the controversies of the circus' history: its mistreatment of circus animals).
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Jenny Lind was a brunette in Real Life, not the Fiery Redhead as portrayed here.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The real-life Barnum's most famous bearded lady was named Annie Jones, not Lettie Lutz. The change is likely done to accommodate the similarly named but more prominently featured Anne Wheeler.
  • Adapted Out:
    • James Bailey. Given how wildly the timeline varies from Real Life, it’s hard to say when Bailey should have appeared (the real Barnum was in his early 70s when partnering with Bailey), but as of the end of the film, the circus has Jumbo the Elephant, who was acquired by Bailey. However, Bailey was married to Ruth McCaddon, so a romance with Anne would have been problematic.
    • Some of Barnum's more celebrated personalities are not present, such as Isaac W. Sprague ("The Human Skeleton").
    • Barnum had a mother and five siblings who survived the death of his father. In the movie he's an only child and an orphan.
  • An Aesop: "Be Yourself" and "family comes first", whether biological or Family of Choice.
  • Age Lift:
    • Charles Stratton (aka General Tom Thumb) made his first tour of America when he was five — thanks to Barnum. Barnum hires him at age 22 in the film.
    • Also, Barnum was in his 60s when he started creating what would become Barnum & Bailey's Circus. Hugh Jackman's Barnum is in the prime of his life here, though.
    • The Bearded Lady was a BABY when she joined the circus in Real Life as opposed to the middle-aged woman she is here.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • It's implied that Carlyle is well on his way to becoming this if he's not toeing the line already.
    • Also, given how many shots are imbibed during Barnum and Carlyle's negotiation song, it's amazing they're not slurring their words by the end. And then near the end after Barnum's heel realization, the circus family is pouring up foaming mugs of beer again to celebrate Barnum's realization of what's important.
      • Incidentally, the real Barnum was a self-described alcoholic for a while. After giving up the drink, he joined the Women's Suffrage Movement and became a Dry Crusader and started inserting temperance propaganda into his show. In fact, this probably should have happened during the course of the film, but it's hard to say for sure due to the messed-up timeline.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Anne Wheeler — enough to be discriminated against in the 19th Century. Her brother W.D. is unambiguously African-American, however.note 
  • Analogy Backfire: This gem.
    Phillip: Why can't you just put more shows in New York? Why do you need to tour the country?
    Phineas: Why did Napoleon march on Russia?
    Phillip: Napoleon was defeated.
    Phineas: Napoleon didn't have a 60 piece orchestra!
  • Anti-Hero: On one hand, Phineas is a good guy who wants to take care of his family and is the first to take the various freaks seriously. On the other hand, it becomes clear that he is using them for fame and fortune and he gets caught up in it all, abandoning them for better things before it comes crashing down around him. He still remains sympathetic and heroic due to realizing what he had done and trying to make it up to everyone.
  • Anti-Villain:
    • Despite her Historical Villain Upgrade, Jenny Lind is a very sympathetic figure, and her motivations are understandable.
    • Bennet, despite being a cold and mean critic does appreciate the diversity of the show and doesn't want it shut down.
  • Appropriated Appellation: After a caustic review disparaging his show as a “circus of humbug...” Barnum changes the name of his venue from the P.T. Barnum museum to P.T. Barnum’s Circus and writes “Prince of Humbug” on his hat.
  • Arc Words: "Risk it all."
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    Barnum: A theatre critic who can't find joy in the theatre? Now who's the fraud?
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The real James Gordon Bennett Jr. wasn't a critic, but the publisher of the New York Herald.
    • Jenny Lind was a famous soprano. In the movie she sings more in the alto range. She was also not romantically interested in Barnum—she ended her American tour early because she came to dislike how he advertised, not because of bitterness over a rejection. There was contractual provision for this and they parted fairly amicably, unlike her surprise-kissing him in front of the press out of spite in the movie. And while she did have a Romance on the Set, it was actually with her pianist, whom she married.
    • In the movie, events that actually took place over the course of decades instead take place in a short enough time frame that Barnum's preteen daughters don't visibly age. To cite an egregious example of this, the Jenny Lind tour and Barnum's museum burning down were separated by some thirteen years in real life, but the movie has them happening simultaneously.
    • Barnum and Charity are seen dancing in front of the unmistakable skeleton of the Flatiron Building, despite construction on that building commencing ten years after Barnum died.
    • The costumes are all over the place, from passably historical to things that look like something available at a modern-day mall.
    • The real Tom Thumb was Barnum's distant cousin, and Barnum had been his legal guardian since he was 4.
    • Phillip Carlyle was fictional but roughly takes the place of Barnum's real life partners.
  • Award-Bait Song:
  • Badass Baritone: Though we never see Barnum throw a punch, we all know he's this, and he never fails to remind us while he's belting notes to the stratosphere in a voice to rival Lettie and Jenny. Ziv Zaifman is a pre-teen with a voice deeper than most child singers ever have.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • A dramatic version: Barnum thinks Charity is leaving him because she thinks he's having an affair with Jenny. She informs him she has no doubts as to his romantic faithfulness to her — she's leaving because he's more obsessed with his career than her.
    • A more conventional example in the final number when Barnum's top hat is juggled from one performer to another as Phillip is seen waiting in the wings... only for the top hat to go back to Barnum. Because he has to pass it to Phillip himself.
  • The Barnum: Being the Trope Namer, Barnum is at his nature a huckster with a talent for exploiting others for his own gain. Nonetheless, he is never portrayed as trying to deliberately take advantage of the stupidity of humans and more of a showman driven by a desire to rise above his station.
    Barnum: People come to my show for the pleasure of being hoodwinked.
  • Bash Brothers: Carlyle and Anne's brother, W. D. Wheeler, take on a group of racist troublemakers together. Bonus points for Carlyle being in love with Anne.
  • Bastard Angst: Jenny alludes to this in her conversation with Barnum — she was born out of wedlock and had to fight her way into high society. It's why she doesn't feel at ease with the upper class.
  • Beauty = Goodness: Zigzagged overall.
    • The majority of the circus troupe invert this; they are considered hideous by society (with the Bearded Lady saying even their own mothers were ashamed of them), but they are some of the most decent people in the movie.
    • Jenny Lind is a beautiful singer who donates much of her earnings to orphans and widows. Actually a subversion, as she ruins Barnum after he rejects her.
    • Anne, W. D. Wheeler, Charity, and Phillip are characters played straight, being beautiful people with good souls.
    • Barnum is a played-with example. He's played by the handsome Hugh Jackman, but runs the gamut of morality throughout the film.
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • It becomes clear as the film goes on that Barnum was telling the "freaks" what they wanted to hear about inclusion and only at best half-believing it himself, as he treats them more and more as assets than people. However, they remain loyal since regardless of Barnum's actual intentions, they did find a sense of self-worth — and that loyalty during the Darkest Hour makes Barnum really appreciate them and truly become the friend he claimed he was.
    • Similar can be said of Phillip Carlyle, an apathetic playwright well on his way to alcoholism and an early grave who only joined Barnum for a better cut of the profits than he was enjoying at the time. After he meets Anne Wheeler, though (and a quick bit of musical soul-searching), he discovers that he enjoys his life more in the circus than he ever did in "high society."
  • Betty and Veronica: Charity Barnum and Jenny Lind are this for P. T., though P. T. himself only has eyes for Charity. Jenny is more than a little put out by this unspoken revelation.
  • Big Brother Instinct: W.D. has to be held back by three people when he thinks Anne is in the burning circus building.
  • Big Damn Hero: Phillip "tries" to be one to rescue Anne, who everyone thinks is still inside the burning museum. When we see that she had gotten out through the back exit safe and sound but Phillip isn't back, Barnum runs into the museum to save Phillip.
  • Big Damn Kiss:
    • Anne gives one to Phillip after he wakes up from his injuries due to burns and smoke inhalation he suffered during his botched rescue attempt in the burning museum.
    • Jenny stages one in front of photographers with Phineas after he rejected her in her hotel room. Talk about Disproportionate Retribution.
    • Charity and Phineas share a lower-key one after the latter's Heel Realization.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Lettie half-jokingly gives one to Barnum before her Patrick Stewart Speech about Family of Choice after Barnum has lost the museum to fire and Charity to his obsession with fame.
  • Book-Ends:
    • The movie opens and closes with the circus troupe performing different verses from the titular song "The Greatest Show."
    • Our first shot of adult Barnum (after the opening Dream Sequence number) is him walking up to Charity's mansion and talking to Charity's father, who isn't happy to see him. At the end of the movie, we get a similar shot of Barnum approaching the house and meeting Charity's father who still isn't happy to see him, only this time Barnum and Charity's children come down the stairs instead of Charity who isn't there.
  • Break Up Song: The first "Rewrite the Stars" montage is about Carlyle and Anne expressing their frustration on having to deal with society maligning their relationship because of their different race and social status and then begrudgingly parting ways.
  • Brick Joke: The first person Barnum hired is Mr. O'Malley, a pickpocket (who lifted his pocket watch). Later in the film, Barnum admonishes O'Malley as he's about to lift a patron's pocket watch.
  • Broken Aesop: The film tries to have the moral of don't judge people who are different that's basically made moot when you realize the circus troupe basically work in a job that relies on them being exploited and mocked for their deformities and, in real life, WAS a job where they were exploited for their looks.
    • There is an entire scene where Tom Thumb mopes about people laughing about him for his height and it's clear the audience is supposed to sympathize with him. Later on, when The Queen and the rest of the court laugh at him, it's clear we're supposed to feel sorry for him there too but the movie itself makes him the butt of short jokes a few times during the movie (i.e. when Barnum picks him up and puts him on the horse, when he walks on the bar and sits on Barnum's hat, and when he rides the baby elephant at the end, all of which are played for laughs).
    • Speaking of Tom, in Real Life, he was the one to give Barnum the money to re-build the circus as opposed to Carlyle. Considering this movie is supposed to have a self-acceptance message about accepting people, even those who look different, it's weird that the movie gave something a physically disabled man did and give his part to someone who is definitely not physically disabled, therefore taking their story away from them. In other words, for a movie about how people who look different should be accepted, it literally wouldn't accept that a physically disabled man was able to save the day and gave something he did to help the main character to an able bodied man.
  • Brother-Sister Team: The Wheelers are a brother-sister pair of trapeze artists.
  • Canon Foreigner: Most of the cast are made-up for the movie. Barnum, his wife and children, Jenny Lind, Tom Thumb, the bearded-lady (albeit with her name altered), Jumbo the Elephant, and Queen Victoria are the only Historical Domain Characters in the film.
  • Cathartic Exhalation: When Jenny starts singing, Phineas gives a "whew!" exhalation — he'd only heard of her singing ability, and had no idea if she'd live up to the hype he'd given her. (In fact, his beaming smile mid-song indicates she surpassed it.)
  • Caustic Critic: James Gordon Bennett Jr., son of the founder of the New York Herald, lambasts Barnum as a classless huckster on his paper and becomes his most public critic. Nonetheless, he eventually comes to respect him and acknowledges that while he's not fond of his circus shows, there are parts of it that he does admire.
  • The Chanteuse: While her venues are different from the norm for this trope, Jenny Lind fits in all other aspects.
  • Character Development: Phillip Carlyle. Initially introduced as a Rich Bastard who doubts Barnum due to him being lower class and knows that he’ll be one if he accepts Barnum’s offer. Though from further convincing from Barnum, he accepts the offer. The development kicks in when he meets Anne Wheeler, an African-American trapeze artist, and becomes smitten (though he hides this). When Barnum begins neglecting his talents in favor of touring with Jenny Lind, Phillip tries to spend more time with her and eventually throws away his upper-class status in favor of being part of Barnum’s circus when his parent mock her. By the end of the film, he’s embraced his part of the circus, becomes an Official Couple with Anne, and eventually becomes the ringmaster.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The pamphlet describing the company's ships. Barnum eventually uses it as collateral for his loan!
    • The house that young Barnum and Charity play in, just a stone's throw from her original home, is the same one they end up owning later in life.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Charity and Barnum meet as children and waste no time in planning out their lives together.
  • Composite Character: Phillip Carlyle replaces many of Barnum's real life partners like James E. Cooper and James Anthony Bailey. He is entirely fictional, though.
  • Conspicuous CG: No real animals were used in the film. The ones that move fast were not particularly wonderfully animated. The horse Tom rides and the lions that jump through the hoops stand out.
    • Tom Thumb/Charles Stratton in general. Whenever he walks, it becomes pretty obvious he's walking on his knees and his real legs have been replaced by digitally inserted ones. The CGI lips to make another actor's voice come out of his mouth are also pretty obvious.
  • Consummate Liar: Barnum is a Con Man but a goodhearted one.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Phineas is the son of a tailor but dresses in rags when accompanying his father to visit wealthy clients. In fact while Phineas does have shoes, they are falling apart and have huge holes.
  • Cover Version: Kesha did an official cover of "This Is Me."
  • The Cynic: Whenever Tom Thumb speaks, he mostly says something cynical. For instance, when Barnum ditches them for the first time, he isn't the least bit surprised and says that he's just another person who doesn't care about them.
  • Dare to Be Badass: "The Other Side", as Barnum is convincing Carlyle to be a partner.
    So trade that typical for something colorful
    And if it's crazy, live a little crazy
    You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
    Or you can risk it all and see...
  • Dark Reprise:
    • Throughout "Rewrite The Stars," Anne is vehement that even if she does love Phillip, society won't let them be together. After he suffers smoke inhalation by running back into the burning museum on the assumption she was still inside, she sings the refrain to his comatose body in a barely audible whisper, affirming her wish to stay with him.
    • In-Universe, Jenny Lind's second performance of "Never Enough," as she cries during it after Phineas has rejected her advances.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Tom Thumb has his moments.
    The Queen: You're even smaller than I imagined!
    Tom Thumb: Well you're not exactly reaching the top shelf yourself, sweetheart.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen:
    • Anne Wheeler is this to Phillip Carlyle. When she asks him what his act is, and he says he doesn't have one, she says "everyone's got an act." Later scenes show them much closer, in particular one where Phillip was afflicted by smoke inhalation and in a hospital bed after he rushed into the burning museum to save her when he thought she was still inside.
    • Jenny Lind is this to P.T. Barnum as well. She's rather cynical and frosty when he first meets her at Queen Victoria's function, but softens as she finds they are Not So Different. That relationship ends badly.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Barnum lived during the 19th century, when women were still expected to be silent and you were shit out of luck if you weren't a WASP, so to advertise and feature people of different skin colors, nationalities, and backgrounds was anathema to the general public of the time, even though today it's commonplace and even expected. Played with, however — in real life the "freaks" were actually respected. For example, Charles Stratton was a beloved celebrity, as were Cheng and Eng (the Siamese Twins) and Frank Lentini (the Three-Legged Man.) Annie Jones (whom Lettie Lutz is based on) was respected, and considered a feminine, dignified woman, despite her facial hair. In the film, most of the bile and discrimination are aimed at them being "freaks", which is more of a modern perspective.
    • The use of 'wild' animals (like elephants, bears and lions) in circuses today is frowned upon due to modern circus goers having a better understanding of animal welfare, but it was standard practice (and maybe even expected) in earlier days. Reflecting this changing attitude, the film doesn't use actual animals and instead replaces them with CGI.
  • Demoted to Extra: Most of the circus performers are barely given any attention in favor of Barnum's story even though many were famous in their own right.
    • Among those briefly seen include Cheng and Eng, the famed Siamese Twins. It requires a Freeze-Frame Bonus to spot Frank Lentini (the three-legged man) and James O'Connell (the Tattooed Irishman) in the circus scenes. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Edouard Beaupré are only briefly introduced.
    • Charles Stratton is only given a few brief scenes and is only shown as a warm-up act. In real life, he was genuine star and critically acclaimed for his talents on stage as well as for his quick wit. In fact, Stratton's abilities were instrumental in helping the general public come to regard Barnum's circus as legitimate performance art rather than a mere sideshow.
  • Determinator: Try telling Barnum what he can't do; he'll go out of his way to prove you wrong. This becomes his undoing in the third act until the members of the circus help bring about a Heel Realization.
  • The Dividual: To an extent the circus performers. While Lettie, Tom, Anne, and W.D. do get their own individual introductions, they, along with the rest of the circus troupe, are usually never seen apart from each other after their introduction scene and rarely do any of them get a chance to display any personality traits unique from each other. All of their personalities are basically just "shy, unconfident minorities/disabled people who learn to have self confidence" and they don't have much of a personality outside of that. The only possible exception is Anne, who does get a romantic subplot with Carlyle and therefore gets to be in multiple scenes away from the rest of the troupe, but even then her character is still hardly fleshed out beyond oppressed minority.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Not only does Mr Hallet miss the point of Charity leaving with Barnum when he still had nothing, but sadly so does Barnum.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Young Barnum daydreams about a show complete with acrobats, circus animals and freaks, which eventually comes true.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Phillip's introduction. Bennett and Barnum share a flask after Barnum's circus is burned down. Barnum also drinks conspicuously alone after Charity has left him, citing his being Married to the Job, and the museum fire.
  • Easily Forgiven: Despite being the most heroic version of the Manipulative Bastard throughout much of the movie, this is what the circus troupe does for Barnum near the end of the film. Given the lack of more convenient modes of travel, Barnum's trip to his in-laws to beg for Charity's forgiveness can be justified here. His kids, naturally, also play this straight.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • It comes a little bit into the movie, but we see a large part of Barnum's character in the scene with his daughters. He spins a great tale of lost technology created by a famous person to set up the shadow lamp he brought her to entertain her. It's all fake, but it makes for a great story and she and her sister are clearly riveted by it, even though they know he's lying, and he knows they know he's lying.
    • Charity's father slaps a preteen lower class Barnum for making his daughter laugh and tells him never to talk to her again in his first scene. Sets up his characterization for the rest of the movie nicely.
  • Eureka Moment: When the Museum is burned down, Barnum realizes that he doesn't need a building — just a tent.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Carlyle is clearly disturbed when Barnum says that the freaks should be put in the standing room area of Lind's performance instead of his box because they'd be too visible. It's a big red flag for him (and the audience) that Barnum is just using them for money and doesn't really buy the self empowerment advice he's been giving them. It would have been quite reasonable for Barnum to point out that there isn't room for everyone in the box and that it wouldn't be fair to play favorites, so the phrasing he actually chose to use is pretty damning.
  • Family of Choice: During Barnum's Darkest Hour, Lettie (the Bearded Woman) tells him that before he hired them, they had no one, and since then, the "freaks" had become a fire-forged family.
  • Fake Irish: Invoked. When introduced to an extremely tall Slavic man, Barnum christens him "The Irish Giant".
  • Fanfare: All the triumphal group songs, i.e. "Come Alive", "This Is Me", and especially "The Greatest Show" feature and are the more awesome for it.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Quite literally. Barnum becomes true friends with Carlyle and his performers after his museum burns down.
  • First Girl Wins: Charity and Phineas are of the Childhood Friend Romance variety. Jenny Lind thinks because Phineas and herself are Not So Different that she can be a better lover than Charity. Phineas finds himself falling for her, resulting in a Near Kiss. He recovers his senses in time to avoid making an irreversible mistake.
  • Flat Character: No one in the circus troupe, besides maybe Anne and her brother, really has any personality outside of "outcasts from society who learn to accept themselves".
  • Foil: The high society in America is far less accepting than that of the United Kingdom. While the elite snub the "freaks" at Jenny's post-performance soiree, British aristocracy, though probably taking their cues from Queen Victoria, embrace them as performers at the very least.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Jenny Lind shamelessly hits on a Happily Married Barnum throughout the film. She becomes a Woman Scorned when it's made clear he's never gonna reciprocate her feelings.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Young Phineas looks at his eventual ringmaster costume in a clothes shop, imagining himself wearing it.
    • A subtle one, but when young Phineas drops a bunch of fabric rolls, they lay themselves out in a perfect arc, the same way they'll be placed at his circus.
    • When young Phineas was hungry, a mysterious woman gave him an apple. This woman had a deformed face, which fueled Barnum's empathy and fascination for the "unique" people later in life.
    • At the beginning of the movie, when an adult Barnum comes to take Charity away from her father's house to get married, her father says she will get tired of the life he offers and come back home to her old wealthy lifestyle. Near the end, she does go back to her father's house, but not because Barnum wasn't rich enough, but rather because he had become too focused on fame and fortune and neglected her and their daughters in the process. She was never unhappy about being poor, and when he comes seeking forgiveness, she readily takes him back.
    • A somewhat subtle one is during the scene where Barnum is trying to hire Tom Thumb for his show. When Tom says that people will just laugh at him, Barnum says "Well, they'll laugh at you anyway so why not get paid?" before changing tactics when Tom shuts the door on him, saying that they'll come to respect him. It shows that Barnum is quick on his feet to tell people what they want to hear to get them on board, but it also shows that he is doing it mostly for the money and attention, not for the sake of the people he's hiring.
    • The soundtrack itself is full of them, including Barnum's Fatal Flaw in "Never Enough" among other things.
    • During "The Other Side", Barnum scoffs "why not just go ahead and ask for nickels on the dime?" when Carlyle demands 18% of the box office take. Carlyle does end up getting 50% when he saves the circus after the Museum burns down. Carlyle also says if he works with Barnum he'll be disgraced and disowned. His parents don't disown him for simply working with the circus, though they disapprove. They DO disown him for his relationship with Anne however.
    • Phillip claims has has no act, while Anne replies everyone has an act. Phillip's act at the end of the film is ringmaster.
  • The Freakshow: The performers in Barnum’s show are a bearded woman, a 22 year-old dwarf, a VERY tall man, a dancer with tattoos all over his body, the original Siamese twins, a three-legged man, a dog-faced boy, a 500+ pound man, a giant, and two African-American trapeze.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: During the number "The Other Side" both the bartender and Barnum can be seen giving Carlyle more alcohol in his shots, presumably to make him more amicable to dealing with Barnum.
  • Freudian Excuse: Phineas's obsession with fame and fortune. He grew up in utter poverty, his father died when he was still a child, and he was homeless for a stretch of time, forced to steal food to survive. As an adult, he says that he just wants to make sure his children never go through what he did, but it becomes clear that it is all just him trying to distance himself as far as possible from his destitute beginnings.
  • Girls with Moustaches: Keala Settle plays Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Woman, and despite the full beard, she's still manages to be a Big Beautiful Woman (with a fantastic singing voice).
  • Hate Sink: The men who start a brawl in the circus and end up burning it down. These men are quite clearly not meant to be liked.
  • Heel Realization:
    • After losing his museum in a fire, and his wife to his obsession with fame, Barnum has one when his circus performers tell him that despite his idiotic risks and not being able to see the forest for the trees, he taught them in his roundabout way to be proud of who they were and helped make them a family, singing "From Now On."
    • Carlyle has a nonverbal one during the number "Never Enough" after dropping Anne's hand when his parents see the action during Ms. Lind's first performance. After Anne gives him a good Death Glare while singing "This Is Me" with the rest of the troupe, he resolves to be better.
  • Have You Come to Gloat?: Barnum says this in a sort-of veiled threat to Mr. Bennett after the museum has burnt down.
    Barnum: If you've come to gloat, I wouldn't.
  • Held Gaze: A long one happens between Anne and Philip Carlyle when they first meet and again with Barnum and Jenny Lind but Barnum realises what he's getting into and turns his gaze away.
  • The Hero: The clean-cut, aristocratic Phillip Carlyle is the proper hero of the story, truly looking out for and caring for the people of the circus he works with and walking away from his upper class wealth and status to be with Anne. Meanwhile, Jackman's Barnum is more of a Jerk with a Heart of Gold obsessed with chasing fame and fortune, much like the real-life Barnum. In the end Barnum passes the role of ring leader to Carlyle.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: Unaware that she is safe, Philip attempts to rescue Anne and ends up being rescued by Barnum.
  • Hidden Depths: Bennett. Despite hating lowbrow entertainment, which he sees Barnum's circus as, he admires that it portrays people of all walks of life as equals, a celebration of humanity as he puts it.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade:
    • While not ugly by any sense of the word, Barnum has nothing close to Jackman's chiseled features. Barnum was also partially bald, while Jackman's full coif is untouched.note 
    • Combined with Age Lift, Queen Victoria is young and pretty in the film. She was not at that period in her life.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Jenny Lind was far from the Woman Scorned who kissed Barnum to stir up controversy and then quit altogether shown in here; She actually parted on amicable terms with Mr. Barnum after finding his intense advertising of her performances distasteful. She even continued to perform in America for a significant time after said break-up.
  • Hollywood Costuming: This movie is set in the mid-19th century, and there are no hoop skirts in sight, while many of the men wear dress shirts with collars out of the Edwardian Era or even later. The filmmakers readily admit that they were going for a modern take on Victorian fashion, so the costumes are all over the place in terms of period.
  • "I Am" Song: The appropriately-titled "This Is Me", about underdogs being unashamed of themselves.
    I'm not scared to be seen
    I make no apologies, this is me!
  • "I Want" Song: "A Million Dreams". Young Phineas sings about his desire to make the world as magical as it is in his dreams. It also becomes Charity's "I Want" Song.
    However big, however small
    Let me be part of it all
    • When Phineas's daughters sing the reprise for "A Million Dreams", singing of their own desire to see the world as magical, Phineas is reminded of his dreams and thus inspired to create his museum.
    • "Never Enough" is a subversion, more of a "I Want What I Can't Have" song which conveniently foreshadows her eventual fate.
  • Ignored Aesop: Barnum tells all his circus actors and his partner Phillip Carlyle that they shouldn't be afraid to be themselves and not conform to society's expectations of them, but he refuses to take his own advice for most of the movie.
  • Informed Attribute: When she's introduced Lettie is stated to be ashamed of her beard... but apparently not enough to have bothered to try to shave it anytime recently, since she's sporting a beard most men couldn't achieve in a month.
  • Insult Backfire: When Bennett prints a review of Barnum's show, calling it a "Circus of Humbug", Barnum decides to rename his show the P. T. Barnum Circus, offers half-price tickets for anyone who shows a copy of the review and wears a gilt-paper crown over his top hat reading "King of Humbug".
  • Interclass Romance: Two cases with penniless Barnum and upper-class Charity in the Childhood Friend Romance variation, and later trapeze artist Anne and aristocrat Phillip Carlyle. In both cases the wealthier half of the couple has to walk away from their family to be with the person "below" them.
  • Invisible Backup Band: Again, being a musical, this is part and parcel of the experience. Averted at the circus (where a five man band can be seen playing) and at Lind's concerts, which feature full orchestras.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • What the troupe realizes when they hear Barnum use the same line on Jenny that he used to rope them in.
      Barnum: America doesn't know it yet, but they are gonna love you.
    • At the very end of the movie, after Barnum steps back from the spotlight to devote more time to his family, he and Charity attend their daughter's ballet recital. He whispers to himself the lines from the opening song "The Greatest Show", only this time he's describing his family;
      "It's everything you ever want,
      It's everything you ever need,
      And it's there right in front of you...
  • It's All About Me: Barnum's Fatal Flaw. Part of his Character Development is letting others have the spotlight.
  • It's the Journey That Counts: The "freaks" believe this. Even with the Museum burned down and them potentially being jobless, they're still no longer the Shrinking Violets they once were, and no longer ashamed of their disabilities. Even if Barnum wasn't totally sincere, he was sincere enough that they believed in him — and in turn, themselves.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • When he worked in the trading company, Barnum tries to pitch the idea of using Otto Lilienthal's invention, the glider, for air transport, revolutionizing the trading industry - but his boss clearly doesn't give a care. Maybe if they waited a little longer for the Wright brothers to use Lilienthal's ideas and then invent powered flight...
    • Rather drolly referenced in the closing moments of the film, when P.T. sagely muses that real estate in Manhattan is a terrible investment. Justified considering what the Five Points were like.
  • Jerkass: There are quite a few including the Caustic Critic Mr. Bennett, Charity's father, and the hate mob of extras perpetually picketing outside the circus. Also, Barnum himself is this until the last twenty minutes.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Barnum. He may be selfish, obsessed with fame and fortune, and a bit of a Manipulative Bastard, but his plight is very sympathetic and understandable. And ultimately, he is a good man at heart, and a loving husband to Charity and a loving father to his children.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Bennett hates Barnum's circus because he thinks Phineas is a Snake Oil Salesman and exploiting the "freaks". He's right. He actually cares about Phineas exploiting people's deformities for profit, and later admits that they were at least being accepted by audiences: a "celebration of humanity".
    Barnum: (beat) I like that.
  • Job Title: Barnum's desire to be the best in his field is the driving force of the film.
  • Karma Houdini: A minor example: Barnum committed fraud in passing off his ex-company's ships (at the bottom of the China Sea) as his own, very above-water fleet, using them as collateral for his loan to start the museum / circus. You'd think this deceit would come to light during his Darkest Hour, but no — it never comes up again.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: A brief but spectacular knife-throwing act is seen during the opening "The Greatest Show" number.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "The Greatest Show" is addressed to the film audience, essentially telling them to brace themselves for what's to come:
    Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've waited for...
  • Lip-Lock Sun-Block: Phillip and Anne near the end. It's a bright circus light, not actually the sun, but the effect is still there.
  • Lonely at the Top: Jenny Lind. She's considered the greatest singer in the world, but she's very much isolated and alone despite the accolades and parties.
  • Love at First Sight:
    • Played straight to the point of parody with Phillip and Anne: when they lock eyes — in slo-mo no less! — while she's swinging toward him on the trapeze, you can practically see the cartoon hearts over their heads.
    • There's an argument to be made for Phineas and Charity in their Childhood Friend Romance. Phineas was, from what we see, the only person Charity talks with who's not telling her how to act, how to hold her teacup, how to comport herself, etc. And Charity is the one person in high society who doesn't treat him like something she stepped in.
  • Magic Realism: The entire film evokes feelings of a Fairy Tale. For example, in the office, all of the clerks are using their counting machines completely in sync. Barnum and his girls hammer nails for show advertisements in complete sync with the drum beats of the song "Come Alive."
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Anne and Phillip are both very aware of the discrimination their relationship will entail them, though it's a pre-marriage romance.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Barnum can talk anyone into doing anything he wants. It's not til after the third act he removes the "bastard" from the trope.
  • Married to the Job: Barnum is this full-stop. He says he does it out of a desire to give the absolute best life for his kids, but he actually wants his father-in-law to see him as worthy of Charity.
  • Medley: An officially sponsored medley, performed by Todrick Hall.
  • Mickey Mousing:
    • Barnum and his daughters nail posters to the beat of "Come Alive".
    • During the bar scene, Barnum, Carlyle, and the bar staff move, serve, and drink in time with the beat of "The Other Side".
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Phineas and Charity are introduced as pre-teens.
  • Mood Whiplash: We go from a goofy fight inside the circus to the circus burning down.
  • Motor Mouth: Downplayed, but Barnum does a lot of fast-talking.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!: It's only shown twice, but W.D. is noticeably protective of Anne, being visibly angry when Carlyle shows initial interest in her, and later when Lettie has to calm him down when she tells Carlyle he's going to be late for his date with Anne at the opera. They become Bash Brothers, so he obviously approves of their romance in the end.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Several examples:
    • Charity's father slaps young Phineas in his Establishing Character Moment and barely accepts him even decades later.
    • The Carlyles' treatment of Anne causes Phillip to have a Heel Realization of sorts and reject them.
    • Queen Victoria treats the "freaks" with the utmost respect, which visibly shocks several of them.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: All of the circus animals are completely CGI, which is a bit ironic considering the historical abuse of them in Real Life.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Lettie Lutz to Annie Jones, one of the most famous of Barnum's real-life bearded ladies.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: invokedBarnum believes in bad publicity driving sales, and it's the reason he shrugs off the protests.
    Barnum: Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.
  • Nouveau Riche: The circus makes the Barnums wealthy, but New York's aristocracy continues to look down on them because of how they made their money.
  • The Oner: CGI or not, the final number where Barnum's top hat is passed to every one of his performers and then back to Barnum looks impressive.
  • Overprotective Dad:
    • Charity's father slaps Phineas hard for speaking to her as a pre-teen. There's probably classism involved as well.
    • Barnum is this for his girls, especially the one who wants to practice ballet but is looked down on because of how her father gained his fortune.
  • Passing the Torch: Barnum gives Carlyle the job of ringmaster, so he can spend more time with his family.
  • Pen Pals: While Charity is at school and Phineas is away working on the railroads, they keep their Childhood Friend Romance alive by writing letters to each other.
  • Playing a Tree: In the closing scene, Barnum's youngest daughter Helen appears playing a tree during her elder sister Caroline's ballet recital. She even waves to her parents in the audience.
  • Politically Correct History: Zig-Zagged. The film leaves out many problematic aspects of the real P.T. Barnum's life, such as his support of minstrel shows and the fact that he began his career as a showman by exploiting a partially paralyzed, blind, elderly slave woman by trying to pass her off as George Washington's former nurse. (To be fair, the film doesn't cover his abolitionism or supporting universal suffrage either.) The movie also downplays nineteenth century racism, with Philip and Anne receiving far less backlash for their interracial relationship than they realistically should have. Conversely, the film actually exaggerates the general population's hostility toward "freaks." For example, some accounts say that people of the time viewed Annie Jones, the real life bearded-lady, merely as a curiosity rather than an appellation, and even said that it didn't compromise her femininity. Charles Stratton was world-famous and well-respected as General Tom Thumb, and his marriage to another little person was front page news.
  • Precision F-Strike: Of the late 19th Century sort.
    Charles: (to P.T.) What are you looking at, flopdoodle?note 
  • Race for Your Love: Though there isn't any time limit involved, the scene of Barnum running through town to catch a train to apologize to Charity at the end of the movie has this vibe, also being set against the penultimate number.
  • Race Lift: Annie Jones was white, while her Expy Lettie Lutz is Polynesian. The other bearded women employed over time by Barnum were also white.
  • Rags to Riches:
    • What P.T. Barnum's story is, growing from a jobless father to a famous showman.
    • Jenny Lind suffered being born out of wedlock and had to fight her way into high society as well.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Barnum's "freaks" are the most literal example of the trope.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jackman's Barnum is idealistic and full of energy; Efron's character is more grounded and down to earth. Late in the film, when Barnum becomes reluctant to take a risk, Anne snarkily asks why is he acting responsible now?
  • Reformed Criminal: O'Malley, caught trying to steal from Barnum, ends up working for him as the closest thing to a Number Two before Carlyle.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Barnum's main hat. He doesn't believe in bad publicity, just publicity. See Up To Eleven for examples.
  • Related in the Adaptation: Inverted. Barnum and Charles Stratton, who were distant relatives in real life, didn't know each other until the movie.
  • Retraux: The film opens with the original 20th Century Fox bumper and old-style title cards, evoking the feel of classic musicals.
  • Rich Boredom: Rich aristocratic playwright Carlyle clearly feels trapped in his station and joins the circus so he can express himself artistically.
  • Satellite Character: The circus performers are this to P.T., Phillip, and Annie, mostly serving to be in the background prepping for the circus, talking to either of the three about how oppressed they are by other people, or joining P.T. in upbeat musical numbers. The only times they really get to be the focus are during the This is Me scene and when they fight the protestors before the circus burns down.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Jenny Lind refuses pay; she requires her share be given to her charities. This was true in Real Life.
  • Secret Test of Character: Phillip and the "freaks" test Barnum's commitment to them, knowing that Phillip can restart the circus even without Barnum, having stored away a rainy day nest egg. Barnum realizing how special and loyal they are to them, and vowing to rebuild at any cost passes their test, and Phillip reveals the nest egg.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: What Phillip's attempted rescue of Anne nearly became — he went into a burning building to rescue her, when she'd already escaped. He would have died had Barnum not rescued him.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Barnum only has eyes for his wife, Charity. He immediately falls in love with her as children, and pines for her throughout their separated adolescence before they come of age and marry. He can't even entertain the idea of being unfaithful to Charity when Jenny makes advances toward him.
  • Shipper on Deck: Lettie can be seen stopping WD with a tap and a "don't even think about it" glare when Carlyle heads out on his make-or-break date with Anne.
  • Ship Tease: It's strongly implied that Jenny is as much a match for Barnum as Charity — but unfortunately for her, Barnum is already Happily Married and with children.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In an early scene, a young Barnum steals a loaf of bread. The last movie musical Hugh Jackman (adult Barnum) was in, Les Misérables (2012), had Jackman's character receive 19 years in prison for doing the same thing. For bonus points, Valjean (played by Jackman) breaks up a fight in Les Misérables, stating that "this is a factory, not a circus". If it's not intentional, it's certainly amusing.
    • The first few notes of "This Is Me" bears at least a passing resemblance to the line "There's a place where we don't have to feel unknown," from the song "You Will Be Found" of Dear Evan Hansen.
  • The Show Must Go On: Barnum says this word for word to Phillip at the end, when he hands him the reins of the circus.
  • Shrinking Violet:
    • Lettie when Phineas first meets her. Understandable, since she owns a full bushy beard. However, being a part of Barnum's circus gives her enough confidence that when Phineas keeps her from Jenny's post-concert soiree, she bursts into the soiree with the rest of the "freaks", singing "This Is Me."
    • The same can be said for the rest of the circus performers, because they all know what they look like and how the public feels about them, but Lettie is far and away the poster girl for it in this film.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Phillip gives a brief one of these to his parents when they voice their disapproval of his courting Anne, publicly humiliating her in front of him at the opera.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Barnum being Barnum, he's accused of this. His retort that while a lot of what he shows off are fake, the smiles he gets from people aren't.
  • Social Climber: Despite his circus doing well, Barnum never quite gets over the discrimination he faced for being poor in his youth and bristles at how they are still seen by the wealthy. He approaches Philip and Jenny to improve his reputation and neglects his troupe once he thinks he's got the upper class's approval. He even acknowledges this in "From Now On".
    I drank champagne with kings and queens
    The politicians praised my name
    But those are someone else's dreams
    The pitfalls of the man I became
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Charity Barnum died long before Barnum started trying to create his famed circus, but here, she is alive and well.
  • Spontaneous Choreography: It's a musical, so of course this trope abounds.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Anne and Phillip. As spelled out to the audience in their song, "Rewrite the Stars", as an interracial couple from different social classes, they are kept apart by social norms. And law, though that isn't addressed.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Anne is played by the 5'10" Zendaya and stands taller than the 5'8" Zac Efron.
  • Superior Successor: Carlyle is much more of A Father to His Men than P.T. ever was. He got the performers in to see Queen Victoria, he stuck with them while P.T. was mooching off with high society and shunning them, he gave up his place with said society for the performers and then his own family when he fell in love with Anne, he got into a physical fight with rioters in order to defend their honor, rushed into a burning building and nearly died in a desperate attempt to save Anne, and kept the nest egg that saves the crew by the end. P.T. passing off his cane to him at the film's end is very much deserved. However, he learned Refuge in Audacity from Barnum, something essential for the circus.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: Jenny Lind's in-universe performance of "Never Enough" in the context of the film hits on multiple threads. For one, Barnum bonds with the song, because it explains his motivations perfectly as an "I Want" Song. For Phillip and Anne, it expresses Anne's frustration at Phillip's half-measure romance, holding her hand (after Jenny sings about holding hands) and not keeping in there (after Jenny sings it's never enough), and for Jenny herself, who despite her fame is really lonely.
  • Take That, Critics!:
    • In-Universe. After Bennett disparages his museum, calling it a "circus of humbug", Barnum changes the name to P.T. Barnum's circus and wears a hat bearing "Prince of Humbug" during the show.
    • Barnum's dialogue with Bennett preemptively does this for issues raised by critics.
      Barnum: A theatre critic who can't find joy in the theatre. Now who's the fraud?
  • Tension-Cutting Laughter: When Barnum and his circus meet Queen Victoria, the queen marvels that Tom Thumb appears even shorter in person. Tom Thumb answers, "Well, you're not exactly reaching the top shelf yourself, sweetheart." After a few seconds strained silence, Queen Victoria laughs delightedly, much to everyone else's relief.
  • Time Skip: Occurs throughout the movie. Barnum and Charity are shown as pre-teens and then skip to Happily Married grown-ups. Minors ones continuously crop up after this. Barnum even mentions how big his daughters got while he was away on business.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Ellis Rubin as young Barnum and Skylar Dunn as young Charity.
  • Token Minority:
    • On the one hand, the Wheelers are the only performers with a legit skill to their name, but relegated to be among the "freaks" just because they're black.
    • Keen-eyed viewers will notice some Asians among the circus folk as well - the Siamese twins of course, and some Chinese acrobats.
  • Trailers Always Lie:
    • Barnum is set up as the defender of the "Other" in the trailers, that together they will show the world they are just as worthy of respect as anyone, but they are left to keep the shows going with little to no thanks about halfway through the movie while Barnum and the more socially acceptable Lind go on a countrywide tour.
    • Probably the best example is in the extended second trailer, Tom Thumb says "They'll laugh at us", and Barnum says "They'll laugh at us anyway." In the movie proper, he says "They'll laugh at you anyway."
    • In the same trailer, Barnum's wife asks him when it'll be enough for him. Barnum says it isn't about him. In the trailer, that line makes it sound like he's talking about standing up for the freaks in his show. In the movie proper, he's talking about his daughters, and it's clear that he is in denial because it really is about him seeking fame and fortune.
    • In the first trailer, a quick shot of Barnum alone at a pub after the shot of him being fired implies he will drown his sorrows before starting the job hunt again. In the movie proper, that pub shot is in the last twenty minutes of the movie during Barnum's Darkest Hour.
  • Up to Eleven: In-Universe — Barnum exaggerates the already extreme, like putting stilts on a giant man, or padding the stomach of a 500 pound man and claiming he's 750.
  • Uptown Girl:
    • The Barnums. Charity is the daughter of a wealthy man, while Phineas came from nothing. Charity's father openly loathes Phineas and insists that she'll tire of poverty and leave him. Charity proceeds to live and raise two children in a tenement without a word of complaint, and their marriage only hits trouble when Phineas becomes obsessed with gaining wealth and social status.
    • Anne and Phillip, with a dose of 19th-century racism. He's a moneyed aristocrat, she's a circus performer. Their sheer difference in social class is the reason Anne rejects him at first.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Except for a very basic outline of events and inclusion of some of Barnum's more popular acts, almost none of the story is strictly historically accurate.
    • Combined with Age Lift, the movie appears to be concerned with showing Barnum creating his and Bailey's famed circus, but Barnum himself didn't get into the circus business proper until he was sixty years old. In addition, he was not an orphan after his father's death, and his wife Charity didn't live to see the circus formed.
    • Barnum's partnership with the shy Swedish soprano Jenny Lind has at least some prominence, even though said partnership was much earlier in his life while he was making a name for himself as a proprietor of "oddities" and hoaxes. Lind was only Barnum's partner for a few years before deciding she could promote herself on her own dime and returning to her native Sweden, and long before the circus was established. Additionally, they didn't have an affair.
    • James Bailey himself has been replaced by the fictional character Phillip Carlyle. Anne and her brother did not exist, and any performer backgrounds have been changed.
  • Vocal Dissonance: The tiny Charles has a very deep voice.
    • The songs could be this for some, as the modern sounding songs, especially when autotune is used, can look out of place with the 1800's setting.
  • Was It All a Lie?: The "freaks" wonder this of Barnum, and later tell him that even if it was, it didn't matter, because they still found their own dignity working for him anyway.
  • Weird Moon: The moon during "A Million Dreams" fills the entire horizon.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Of the father-in-law variety. While Charity's mother begins to warm to her granddaughters for the first time, Phineas picks the worst time to remind his father-in-law of his predictions of failure, driving a wedge between the three generations unnecessarily.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: O'Malley disappears from the plot just before the big building fire.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Barnum's "freaks" become upset when he starts forsaking them to please high society.
    • Charity also asks Barnum when enough will be enough while he packs for a countrywide tour with Jenny Lind.
    • Anne's none too pleased the first few times Phillip bows to societal pressure over openly acknowledging his feelings for her.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Downplayed, since while Phineas misses his daughter's ballet recital, his daughters never feel abandoned. (His wife, however...)
  • Whip Pan: All over the place in "The Other Side".
  • Woman Scorned: How does Jenny Lind deal with someone rejecting her? By ruining that person's reputation.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: "Dog Boy" performs a tilt-a-Whirl Headscissors on one of the protesters during their invasion of Barnum's circus.
  • Zebras Are Just Striped Horses: Barnum and his family are shown riding in a coach driven by a pair of zebras when he takes them to their new mansion. If you look closely you realize that these literally are painted horses - Barnum fakes these just like so much else in the pursuit of showmanship.

♫ We light it up, we won't come down
And the sun can't stop us now
Watching it come true, it's taking over you
This is the greatest show! ♫

Top

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

/

Media sources:

/

Report