It’s mid-way through the Summer holidays, it’s 40 degrees outside – the perfect day to hit the cinema with my ten-year-old kid. Before I do, I say the Parents’ Prayer:
Dear God, please let there be something not animated that we’ll both enjoy, I silently beg as we Google movies.
I’ve been a good mum. We’ve watched all the kids holiday movies. Please let The Rock miraculously be in another one because we’ve already seen ‘Jumanji’. I can’t take anymore animated American crap. And I need to see more of The Rock. Much more.
Jackpot – my prayers are answered (minus The Rock). The Greatest Showman – and it’s got Hugh Jackman in it.
I want to see it, even though I hate the concept of animal circuses. Even though I know P.T. Barnum, whose life the film is about, made his name by featuring ‘freaks’ (people with unusual features) in his museums and shows. By the trailer I can see it’s not a biopic that addresses the ugly realities of the real ‘freak shows’ of the nineteenth century, but addresses just enough about it so that my kid can have his eyes opened a little.
Why do I want to do this?
Because when I was ten, I watched a movie called The Elephant Man. The film was about the life of Joseph Merrick, who developed severe deformities as a child, and whom as an adult in London in the late 1800s volunteered to be displayed in a Victorian freak show. Merrick chose the ‘occupation’ because he was unable to to gain employment due to his limited physical abilities. He is treated appallingly by society, but respectfully by a few significant people.
Watching the movie as a child had the most profound impact on me. It exposed me to new depths of human cruelty, which gave me a strong sense of my duty towards other people to be a kind person. It taught me that people are people no matter what they look like, and that it is so very wrong to discriminate on the basis of appearance. And that any sort of disrespect of a human needs to be vocally advocated against.
The movie essentially taught me that I had an absolute obligation to be aware of anyone at risk of being treated unequally. I’m convinced it changed my life. And I’m also convinced that my dad knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to screen it on VHS at home.
So when I saw the trailer for The Greatest Showman, I thought that perhaps it could be The Elephant Man for my son. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Of course, the movie is somewhat complicated by the fact that Barnham made money from displaying ‘freaks’. (But, to some extent, that’s how the world works – everything is about making money from people. We could even make an argument that the glamorous world of high fashion and modelling exploits, for massive financial gain, how people look.)
But in the context of Barnham, it was significant to me that, at least in the movie, it’s not how the talent felt about Barnham and their role in the show.
They’re not ‘freaks’ – they are stars. That’s how they feel. That’s how Barnham treats them, and they recognise that. At one point, one of them says to him, “Our own mothers hid us.” Barnham’s circus, in the movie, gives them a family, and a home. A sense of belonging when they’ve been isolated their whole lives.
That’s something I wanted my son to see; you don’t have to be accepted by everyone. Just find own people and you’ll be ok.
Another reason why I wanted my kid to see the flick was because I wanted him to witness Jackman singing and dancing. I wanted him to see this is a career move of a real man. That Jackman is not just the conventionally masculine Wolverine – he’s also a ‘real man’ when he’s in top hat on the dance floor.
This Glorious Mess talks to Marc Fennell about the best kids movies.
The movie delivered on all of this, and more. Sure, it’s saccharine, and sure, it glosses over the deeper and troubling issues. But it’s also inspirational and socially aware. There’s an interracial love against the odds. A triumph over classism. The songs are uplifting and inspirational – and perfect to sing loudly in the car, or supermarket, later, to embarrass your kids. I strongly suggest these lyrics for maximum impact:
“I’m not scared to be seen
I make noooo apologies – this is ME!”
All of this makes The Greatest Showman the greatest kids movie of the Summer.