Festive family fun: Paddington 2 and The Greatest Showman

As if sensing a critical kicking, The Greatest Showman throws the first punch. Responding to a dire notice in the New York Press, Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum decries critics as, essentially, misery guts who wouldn’t know pure joy if it relentlessly sang and danced around them for 90 minutes. There can’t be many film reviewers who haven’t received a similar critique in the course of their careers. There’s always going to be someone who adored the thing you’ve just dismantled.

This defensive jab on the part of the filmmakers does put a critic in a tricky position, however – one that feels characteristic of the movie. For there is no denying that The Greatest Showman is the most unremitting joyful 105 minutes I’ve spent in a cinema this year. I had a great time. And that’s also the problem.

 

GSOE_D11_121216_7259.cr2

Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman. Photo: supplied

 

Real life impresario (and creator of the modern circus) P.T. Barnum is a fascinating character, as worthy of revulsion as he is admiration. He recruits a team of living “freaks” to give his failing museum of curiosities a shot in the arm. If they weren’t freakish enough, he exaggerated their deformities to sensational effect. Unfortunately, the film whistles and dances around the darker aspects of Barnum, airbrushing him into a brave liberator of the downtrodden. Although there are hints of how little attention he paid to the needs and interests of his team of performers, we’re not given a chance to debate for ourselves whether he’s exploiting or celebrating them. The propulsive pop score is forever barreling us along to the next party.

But Christmas is the time of year when we’re more-than-usually willing to tolerate a good dose of schmaltz. If you’re happy to sit on your objections, you’ll have a marvellous time. You might even celebrate seeing a diverse bunch of faces on screen, even if we never really get to know any of them beyond their unique physical characteristics (the bearded woman, the tiny general etc). This is a full-blown, utterly shameless musical, packed with romance, triumph and a seductress worthy of the odd boo-and-hiss (Barnum is the perfect gentleman, of course). Jackman is predictably charismatic, if you can get over his being at least 20 years too old, and Zac Efron is charming as romantic lead Phillip Carlyle. Michelle Williams is frustratingly underused as Barnum’s wife, but Rebecca Ferguson sparkles as opera singer Jenny Lind and pop star Zendaya brings surprising substance to a slender part as a trapeze artist.

 

GSOE_D20_011317_6158.cr2

Zac Efron and Zendaya in The Greatest Showman. Photo: supplied

 

In true pantomime spirit, The Greatest Showman is exactly as terrible as it is wonderful. To put it another way, it’s a festive treat packed with so much sugar and spice that it’s sure to please the whole family (provided you wait until afterwards to fill in a few missing facts).

 

 

Aimed at a younger crowd, Paddington 2 will nevertheless delight parents and older siblings alike. Featuring a top notch collection of English actors, it’s a warm hearted romp through a slightly fantastical London that owes as much to Wes Anderson as it does Richard Curtis (Love Actually). Settling into life with his adoptive family, Peruvian ex-pat Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is inspired to buy his much-loved great aunt a unique pop-up book. It turns out said book is also coveted by fallen thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who believes it holds the clue to hidden treasure. Larks ensue.

There’s much to be said about the film’s idealised portrait of multicultural, pre-Brexit Britain, but we’ll leave that for another time. In short, Paddington 2 is the best kids’ movie in a long while. Its rare to find a children’s film that can be so genuinely funny for adults without puncturing its sense of innocence. A fast, if not frenetic, script by Simon Farnaby (Horrible Histories) is lifted by the remarkable cast – most notably Hugh Grant, who nails the affectionate, cheeky tone and delivers a career best comic performance. Sally Hawkins (tipped to bag an Oscar for The Shape of Water) also deserves a special hat-tip for fleshing out a sketch of character so that a key scene at the end packs a surprising emotional wallop.

 

paddington2-still015

Hugh Grant in Paddington 2. Photo: supplied

 

If I had any hesitation, it was more to do with the changing nature of kids’ films, where the narrative feels obliged to hit the same extremes as every adult blockbuster thriller. The Paddington stories have traditionally found drama in the small things – an overflowing bath, putting a red sock in with the white laundry, or making a mess in the kitchen. Here, our beloved bear is sent to prison for burglary and nearly drowns following a terrifying train crash. There were more than a few distraught kiddies at our Saturday morning screening.

I think there is still a space for quieter stories, where the drama better reflects the lives and concerns of the young audience.

But never mind me. While thoroughly modern, there’s an appealing nostalgia on show. In Paddington, we have a hero whose day-saving superpowers are decency and politeness – an alluring antidote to the wise-cracking, precocious heroes that tend to populate kids films. That’s worth celebrating. More than that, Paddington 2 is a reassuring reminder that pure cinematic joy does exist – and that this jaded critic still knows it when he sees it.

Paddington 2

  • Opens December 21
  • Rated G, 102 minutes
  • paddington.com
  • ★★★★★

The Greatest Showman

  • Opens December 26
  • Rated PG, 107 minutes
  • www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-greatest-showman
  • ★★★

Recommended

Australia Day fun

Australia Day fun

Melissa Heagney
Joyous movies

Joyous movies

Myke Bartlett
Summer reads

Summer reads

Myke Bartlett
Summer festivals

Summer festivals

Myke Bartlett
Glamorous New Year

Glamorous New Year

Melissa Heagney