Zac Efron, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from "The Greatest Showman."

Zac Efron, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from "The Greatest Showman."

Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox via AP

The Greatest Showman, like P.T. Barnum himself, twists the truth for the sake of your enjoyment. While inspired by the true story of how Barnum created what would become the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (the "Greatest Show on Earth") in the 1800s, this colorful musical is no biopic, and there is little in the way of deep history.

To its credit, though, the film is upfront about this. When a snobby critic asks Barnum (Hugh Jackman) how he can be comfortable selling tickets to a show in which everything is fake, Barnum replies by asking, "Do the smiles look fake?" We can have fruitful and possibly heated discussions about the movie's portrayal of the real P.T. Barnum, but at the end of the day, catchy music and upbeat dancing deliver a message of inclusion and acceptance that shines bright.

Showman opens with a lot of energy before quickly slowing down to Barnum's more somber past. A poor tailor's son married to a woman who comes from wealth (Michelle Williams), Barnum is obsessed with elevating his status. After losing yet another job and fearing for his ability to take care of his wife and daughters, he manages to hoodwink a bank into loaning him money to buy a museum.

The museum fails to bring people through the door, and one of his daughters tells him it's because there are "too many dead things" in it. So he decides to put on a show. His stars? All of the people that the rest of society wouldn't accept.

Among the acts is the "bearded lady" (Keala Settle), who has a wonderful singing voice but hides herself because of her face. Then there's Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a dwarf performer whom history remembers as Gen. Tom Thumb. Joining the show later is business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), an uptown man of means who is caught off-guard not only by his attraction to Barnum's circus, but also to black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), who is an outcast only because of the color of her skin.

The story is interesting and the beats are well-acted, but it's the musical numbers that make The Greatest Showman. All-original music from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the same lyricists behind La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen) is paired with exciting choreography (which in turn is bolstered by some great camera work) for songs that will stay in your brain long after you leave the theater.

While Showman doesn't deify Barnum, it definitely sanitizes him. The film barely touches on the ways in which the real Barnum, a product of his time, exploited such outcasts for personal fame and profit (often in racist and otherwise problematic ways). Instead, it turns Jackman's character into a clever master of marketing who is able to accept people for who they are. This Barnum gives so-called freaks the spotlight because he knows they deserve it — though he also never objects to making money off their backs.

Barnum's character flaws in Showman are nothing new:  Fame and fortune go to his head, threatening the relationships he holds dear. I suppose that's a far easier struggle to portray in a PG movie than other Barnum controversies, but it's a decision that some viewers are sure to have ethical qualms about.

When Barnum's ethics do fail and he shuts out the people he claims to care about, those in his cast of outcasts are more than up to the task of picking themselves up. The inspiring anthem "This is Me," which has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination, puts the theme of acceptance front and center, telling listeners to stand up and proudly march to the beats of their own drums. Diversity and imagination are celebrated in this circus, and that's capable of putting a smile on your face.

So we return to that question posed by Barnum to the fictional critic: Does it matter that things in the movie aren't real if the smiles are? If you can accept that premise, there is a lot of fun to have with The Greatest Showman, and it manages to turn some controversial history into a positive story along the way.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (B+)

Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl. 105 minutes. In wide release.

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