Set in 19th-century New York, The Greatest Showman tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman), an American showman, businessman and founder of Barnum’s Circus. Barnum was born into poverty but dreamed of great things from a young age. He served in the house of a rich family where he befriended his future wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), much against her parents’ wishes.
Charity and Barnum have two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). They live a mediocre life until Barnum is sacked from his job when the company he works for goes bankrupt. Barnum manages to persuade a bank to lend him money to take over a museum, which he wants to fill with curiosities. Unfortunately, the museum doesn’t do well until Barnum decides to fill it with real-life curiosities. He recruits all sorts of misfits, including a very small man he calls General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), a bearded lady called Lettie (Keala Settle), conjoined twins, a man covered in hair called Dog-Boy, and Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who are African-American siblings and trapeze artists.
The show causes much controversy among locals, who think it’s indecent and offensive for such people to be on the stage. But other people love the show, and it’s quite successful. Barnum wants to be accepted by ‘high society’, so he employs a well-respected producer, Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), to help him. Carlyle gets an introduction for Barnum to meet Queen Victoria, which greatly lifts Barnum’s status. In London Barnum meets a famous opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), whom he persuades to come to America to perform around the country. Barnum goes into debt to do this, and when Jenny gives up the tour, Barnum ends up losing his house. At the same time, thugs burn down the circus theatre and Barnum ends up bankrupt. But he doesn’t give up and develops the idea of touring his show around the country in a big top tent.
Prejudice; acceptance of differences; inclusivity
The Greatest Showman has some violence. For example:
- When Barnum is a young boy, Charity’s father hits him across the face for making Charity laugh and spill her drink.
- General Tom Thumb rides a horse and shoots pistols in the air.
- On several occasions, local thugs protest and shout insults at the circus performers. Fights break out between the two groups.
- Thugs set the theatre on fire during one of their riots.
Content that may disturb children
In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, The Greatest Showman has some scenes that could scare or disturb children under five years. For example, the appearances of some of the curious characters might scare young children.
In addition to the violent scenes and scary visual images mentioned above, The Greatest Showman has some scenes that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example:
- Barnum watches his father get sick and die. Barnum is left on his own and forced to steal food to survive. A woman with a badly disfigured face gives him an apple.
- Friends laugh at Caroline and tell her she smells of peanuts.
- Philip enters the burning theatre because he thinks Anne is inside. Barnum goes inside and rescues Philip, who is unconscious. Both are black with burns, smoke and soot. Many people are screaming and crying.
- Philip is seen in the hospital with his arms in bandages.
In addition to the violent scenes mentioned above, there are some scenes in The Greatest Showman that could scare or disturb children in this age group. For example, Philip falls in love with Anne but is shamed by his parents for being seen with her in public because she’s African-American.
Nothing of concern
The Greatest Showman has some sexual references. For example, Barnum is obviously attracted to Jenny Lind and she to him. When he refuses her, she ends the tour but not before kissing him on stage.
Alcohol, drugs and other substances
The Greatest Showman shows some use of substances, including characters drinking at restaurants, at home, in pubs and so on.
Nudity and sexual activity
The Greatest Showman has some nudity and sexual activity, including when Barnum and Charity kiss, as do Philip and Anne.
Nothing of concern
There is some mild coarse language in The Greatest Showman.
Ideas to discuss with your children
The Greatest Showman is musical theatre at its best, with great singing and dancing sequences and many positive messages.
This movie is recommended for older children and adults. This is partly because you might need to explain to children that at the time the movie is set, it was revolutionary to allow people with differences to perform. Barnum’s circus wasn’t intended as a ‘freak’ show, but this is how some people saw it. There are also some intense moments and some of the content could scare younger viewers.
The main messages from this movie are that:
- You’re limited only by your imagination.
- We should celebrate humanity and present ‘people of all shapes, sizes and colour’ as equals.
- To quote Barnum, ‘the noblest art is that of making people happy’.
You could also talk with your children about the following issues:
- Why is it forbidden for Philip to go out with Anne?
- How do we see, treat and include people with differences? In 19th-century society, people with differences were often swept aside, ignored and rejected. Barnum wants to include them and present them as equals.
- What are the ethics of having animals performing in circuses?