Hugh Jackman stars in a slick new musical based on the life of circus impresario PT Barnum. It’s chaste, family-friendly fun that plays it safe, writes Nicholas Barber.

Before Hugh Jackman was an X-Man, he was an award-winning stage-musical star, and his hearty, matinee-idol aura has never faded. Even when he was beating up supervillains as Wolverine, he looked as if he’d prefer to put his hands on his hips, rest one foot up on a tree stump, and belt out a chorus of Oklahoma. 

On screen, he’s had a couple of chances to show off his musical chops, as an animated penguin in Happy Feet and as not-so-animated Valjean in Les Miserables. But his feel-good new film, The Greatest Showman, is where he truly gets to unleash his inner trouper, and he barely stops singing, dancing and flicking around a top hat from beginning to end.

It’s more traditional than the version which premiered almost four decades ago

He plays PT Barnum, the 19th-Century huckster and circus impresario, but this isn’t a film of the 1980s Broadway hit, Barnum – the one with There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute. It’s a slick new musical with upbeat songs by La La Land’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a script co-written by Bill Condon, who directed Dreamgirls. In many ways, though, it’s more traditional than the version which premiered almost four decades ago.

The film might have explored parts of Barnum’s remarkable life which aren’t covered in the previous musical: his anti-slavery campaigning, for instance. But instead The Greatest Showman is a sanitised rags-to-riches fairytale, starting with a glimpse of his childhood as a poor tailor’s son in Connecticut. Within the space of one song, he has grown up, married his sweetheart – played by Michelle Williams – and settled into a Dickensian office job.

His wife and two daughters are content with their lot, because they’re too goshdarned virtuous to care about money. But Barnum dreams of making the world a more magical place, and so he opens the American Museum in New York. First he fills it with waxworks and moth-eaten stuffed animals, and then, on the advice of his cutesy daughters, he rounds up a roster of so-called “oddities”: a bearded lady (Keala Settle), a dog-faced boy, a tattooed man, and various other proto-hipsters who are given the opportunity to be proud of their singular attributes - and definitely not to be gawped at and exploited.

Barnum accomplishes all of this with amazing ease, but even though ticket sales are soon soaring, he has to put up with snobs sneering at him and boozy thugs shouting their disapproval. What he really wants is not to be the “Prince of Humbug” but to be accepted into high society. And that’s where things get tricky. He employs a moneyed playwright, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), to class up his act, but Carlyle gets tongues wagging by holding hands with a black trapeze artiste (Zendaya). And when Barnum arranges for a classical soprano known as the “Swedish nightingale” (Rebecca Ferguson) to tour America’s grandest concert halls, there are rumours that their relationship is personal as well as professional.

The songwriters have decided that pretty much every number should be an outsider’s self-affirmation anthem

If there is any truth to these rumours, the film doesn’t acknowledge it. The Greatest Showman is determinedly chaste, wholesome, family-friendly entertainment with no sex or swearing, and it is careful not to startle its viewers. Its messages are all positive without being controversial: don’t judge people by their backgrounds; follow your dreams; don’t follow your dreams if they take you away from your loyal wife. Its choreography is crisp and lively, but the film’s first-time director, Michael Gracey, doesn’t go for the rude bravado or the sensory bombardment which Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! had. And while its funk-pop songs would have blown listeners’ minds in the mid-1800s, they now seem calculatingly commercial. Perhaps inspired by the phenomenal success of Let It Go in Frozen, the songwriters have decided that pretty much every number should be an outsider’s self-affirmation anthem. There’s even one called This Is Me – a title which makes I Am What I Am in La Cage Aux Folles seem vague and mealy-mouthed in comparison.

There’s a lot to be said for efficient, old-fashioned, mainstream movie musicals, of course, but I’m not sure if such a musical should be about a shameless wheeler-dealer who was shocking enough to provoke placard-waving protests. Should a celebration of outrage be so studiously inoffensive? Should an ode to risk-taking be so safe? And should a hymn to humanity in all its shapes and sizes revolve around two square-jawed and thick-quiffed leading men?

This last question is particularly troubling. Yes, Carlyle breaks a taboo by being seen in public with a black woman, but none of the more unusual Oddities gets a romance of their own, or, indeed, any other kind of plot. By the end of the film, the bearded lady is still nothing but the bearded lady, the dog-faced boy is nothing but the dog-faced boy, and the tattooed man is a complex individual with a rich back story, a proactive personality, and a character arc of his own. Only joking: he’s nothing but the tattooed man. 

When you hear the Oddities chanting This Is Me, it’s tempting to ask: “Yes, but who are you?” The Greatest Showman doesn’t offer any answers. As progressive as it tries to be, its misfit supporting cast has one job, and that’s to stand around being grateful to a tall and handsome white hero.

★★★☆☆ 

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.