Updated: Feb 4, 2020
It, the second Stephen King adaptation to makes its way to theaters in the last six weeks (after The Dark Tower), is thankfully far better than the first. It’s a well-written, occasionally scary horror film, which successfully replicates King’s usual fine eye for how kids relate and speak to each other.
It is the story of seven thirteen year olds trying to rid their hometown of an evil presence that has taken the form of a clown named Pennywise (a creepy Bill Skarsgard, from Netflix’s horror series Hemlock Grove). This story was told in a fondly-remembered two-night, three-hour 1990 ABC miniseries (this movie covers essentially the first half of the material covered in that version). The miniseries featured an enjoyable performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise, but was plagued by cheesy dialogue and some very significant pacing issues. Those issues are largely cleared up here (though, at 129 minutes, it still feels a little on the long side).
In this film, the kids (all played very well by the talented young cast) convincingly sound like kids. This is a horror movie, but what it is really about is the friendship that develops one summer between seven lonely thirteen year-olds (collectively, they call themselves “The Losers Club”) and how that friendship makes them stronger than they ever could have been on their own.
All of the Losers are well-developed and have distinct personalities. Since It torments the kids by using their deepest fears, it is important that each of them stand out as individuals.
There is the stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher from last year’s sci-fi film Midnight Special), who still has questions following the disappearance of his little brother. There is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in the group, who has an abusive father. Then there is overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who harbors a crush on Beverly. There is also wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, from Netflix’s Stranger Things), orphaned Mike (Chosen Jacobs, from Hawaii Five-0), germaphobic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Rabbi’s son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff, who plays a young Star-Lord in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), who is studying for his bar mitzvah.
These types of descriptions make each of them sound one dimensional, but they’re really not. All of the kids have their own story, though some (specifically Bill and Beverly) are developed more than others. What these kids have in common is that they are bullied at school and ignored or abused at home. That would make them easy prey for a monster that eats children, unless they can band together to fight It off.
Pennywise is supposed to be a terrifying creature that preys on the fears of the weak. His appearance is creepy and his seeming delight at torturing kids is unsettling in a good way (since this is a horror film). The problem is that, the more you see of Pennywise, the less scary he gets. It is kind of a double-edged sword for this particular story because he has to be on-screen due to the nature of his horror. He is not the kind of monster that can stalk his prey from the shadows. As It goes on, his scenes become the least interesting. Skarsgard is fine in the role (more ominous and less goofy than Curry was), but after his first couple of scenes, there is no place for him to go as a character. He is evil incarnate and that’s about it. Pennywise is essentially a plot device and, though he is fun for a while, he wears out his welcome before film’s end.
On the other hand, the scenes with the Loser’s hanging out and acting like kids are great. They make the film feel unique from other horror films. Because we know who these kids are and what kind of lives they lead, it makes the scenes where their lives are in danger all the more effective. I actually cared about these kids. The most impressive thing director Andy Muschietti (who also made the 2013 horror movie Mama) and his writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (best known for directing the acclaimed first season of HBO’s True Detective, Fukunaga originally developed this project as writer and director, but left over creative differences) and Gary Dauberman (the writer of 2014’s Annabelle)) do here is switch back and forth between the horror and the realistic scenes of childhood. It does not feel like two different films stapled together. One feeds off the other and that makes both stronger.
I have never read It the book, so I am not sure how faithful It the movie adapts the story to the screen. However, I have read other Stephen King novels and this movie feels like a King story. The characters, dialogue and even some of the story beats just feel right. It is not a perfect film, there is maybe one subplot too many and the film could stand to lose about ten minutes, but it is entertaining, fun and smart. It is a very good piece of escapism. I eagerly anticipate the impending chapter 2.
3½ out of 5
Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough
Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom
Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh
Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier
Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon
Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak
Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris
Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman