4 out of 5 stars.
“It” opens with one of the most famous and controversial scenes from Stephen King’s novel. Six-year-old Georgie Denbrough from the small town of Derry is chasing a paper boat in the rain, when it floats into a gutter. As he goes to retrieve it, Georgie is confronted by a clown hiding inside the gutter, who calls himself Pennywise and slowly entices the young boy to reach inside the gutter. The result is the severing of the boy’s arm and, ultimately, his murder, but this gruesome scene doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the movie, which is lighter on the scares and violence than you may expect (unless you already have an abnormal fear of clowns, in which case, good luck to you). But its exploration of several themes, including joining together to overcome evil and coming-of-age in the wake of traumatic experiences, elevate this surprisingly funny and incredibly emotional story beyond just a series of jump scares and haunted house antics, making it one of the best adaptations of a King novel to date.
Directed by Andy Muschietti, this adaptation of “It” focuses on just one part of King’s epic novel, the childhood years of the main characters in the late 1980s (just one way in which the film modernizes the story, as in the novel, this part of the book is actually set in the 1950s). After Georgie’s disappearance in the film’s opening scene, the story fast forwards to the following summer, introducing us to all the young main characters as they are concluding the school year. This band of misfits, later known as the “Loser’s Club,” includes Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who speaks with a stutter and seems to be the only one who cares about what happened to his brother, as well as all the other kids who have gone missing in the last few months. There’s also the sickly hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the loud-mouthed Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), the practical Jewish boy. They are later joined by the new kid, Ben, (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who is picked on for being overweight, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), an African American teen who works on his grandfather’s farm outside of town, and Bev (Sophia Lillis), who is called a slut by most of the town but is in fact frequently abused by her father. The beginning of the film does a great job setting up all these characters, their relationships with each other, and their unique personalities. A tone reminiscent of 80s films like “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies,” (or newer takes on 80s films, like “Stranger Things”) is established that injects a lot of fun and humor into the proceedings, but also leaves room to explore each character’s problems and fears.
And it’s fear that Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgard) feeds on, allowing him to remain prominent in the minds of children in a way that adults are unable to see. We learn that he has appeared in the town to prey on children for several months every 27 years, ever since a massive explosion in Derry in the early 1900s killed nearly one hundred kids. As the story unfolds, he appears to each of the children individually, taking on a different form based on their different fears. While these scenes fall back on a lot of horror movie tropes, it’s the way that they are individually tailored to each child that makes they resonate. The same can be said of Skarsgard’s performance, which goes from childlike to mildly creepy to sinister to outright terrifying depending on the scene and the character he is interacting with. Occasionally, the effects get in the way of the acting, never allowing him to fully enjoy any pivotal scenes of pure acting that go in to so many great, memorable villain performances, but he still more than makes the iconic role his own. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, particularly the members of the Loser’s Club, who have an undeniable chemistry with each other that makes their characters leap off the screen and in to reality. Wolfhard (who many viewers will likely recognize from “Stranger Things”) is a standout as the wise-cracking Ritchie, but its Lieberher and Lillis who embody the heart of the story.
The film does have a lot of issues with pacing, as it goes for long stretches without any scares, then goes into a barrage of scenes in which Pennywise confronts the kids. The finale stretches on for just long enough that it starts to grow tiresome, but it’s still an effective culmination of the kids unifying to defeat this evil entity. The use of CG effects in the scary scenes is more effective than not, and the cinematography is lovely, contrasting shots of an idyllic small town with its ugly underbelly—not just in reference to “It,” but also to the everyday abuses and issues that the kids have to regularly deal with in their home lives.
None of the scenes in the body of the film are quite as shocking as the first scene, but that’s okay. “It” is less focused on scaring the viewer (although it will do that from time to time), and more focused on telling a story about children growing up and facing down their fears. Those fears just happen to manifest themselves in a scary clown.
Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated R.