Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Release Date: September 8, 2017
Starring: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis
It's pretty amazing that only a few weeks after the release of one of the most disappointing adaptations of a Stephen King work, The Dark Tower, we get one of the better ones with Andy Muschietti's It. This isn't the first time King's novel has been adapted, of course; in 1990, the world was treated to a TV miniseries that showcased an iconic performance by Tim Curry, who left such a strong mark on pop culture with his turn as Pennywise that most people forget that the rest of the miniseries itself around him isn't too great.
But now here we are 27 years on and the story of a group of kids who live in the fictional town of Derry, Maine known collectively as the Losers Club is being retold properly. After a series of disappearances, including that of the Losers' leader Bill's own little brother, Bill and his friends, a motormouth named Richie, a hypochondriac named Eddie, and the neurotic Stan, set out to find out what's going on, as none of the adults in town seem to care, each missing kid quickly forgotten about as soon as the next one has gone missing. Along the way, they're joined by the new kid in town, Ben, an outcast girl named Bev, and the home-schooled Mike, each one of them finding solace in the company of each other and the strength to face the evil lurking in their town: It.
I spoke in my review of The Dark Tower about how that adaptation missed the mark by shying away from its source material, watering it down for the sake of making it as generic as possible in a way that became unappealing to newcomers and fans of King's epic series of books. It, thankfully, doesn't do that, embracing the book in an honorable way. Though it makes changes I'm on board with, like wisely shifting the action from the 1950s to the 1980s, and some I'm not, which I'll get into in a bit, what differentiates It from a failure like The Dark Tower is that the film captures the spirit of the book even with the liberties it takes, which is that of a coming-of-age journey for the kids who happen to be running through a gauntlet of horror.
It takes on many physical forms in its pursuit of children, including, obviously, everyone's favorite, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but It's also much more than that. It preys on the kids' fears - Bill's grief, Eddie's hypochondria, Bev's emergence into womanhood, and so on - but in doing so, It allows, albeit completely unintentionally, the various Losers to overcome their individual issues. It represents the challenge of growing up or having to let things go in order to move on and get better, that intangible, indescribable "it" feeling we've all felt at one point, and if these kids can overcome the physical manifestation of It, then they can conquer anything. It's that focus on giving most of the kids room to grow throughout the story that's the film's real strength, rather than simply going full-tilt horror.
That's not to say the film has a shortage of scares, though. It is an excellent threat, and Bill Skarsgard's performance as Pennywise is stellar. It takes on a number of forms throughout the film, like a leper and a group of zombies, but Pennywise is, unsurprisingly, the real treat, so effective to the point it feels that we weren't given enough of him (which is usually not the case in horror films). His appearance is unsettling, his physicality is deliciously, playfully predatory, and even the way he taunts the kids, like mock crying in the face of a child breaking down or waving from the bushes with a hand he's chewing on as he spectates someone getting beaten up, is incredible. Skarsgard really makes the role his own; never once did I wish I was watching Curry instead, and I'm glad the two performances can go side by side for being such uniquely different yet perfect portrayals of such an evil character.
Scenes where It is directly involved are tense. The infamous opening scene where Bill's brother Georgie encounters Pennywise at the mouth of a storm drain is rock solid, and it's followed up by a number of equally great scenes including a chase through a library basement, a pair of showdowns inside and outside of the abandoned Neibolt house, an encounter in a flooded basement, and a thoroughly effective sequence involving the kids and a projector in a garage. Even when It isn't directly on screen, the creature's presence is always permeating the film; watch, for instance, the librarian in the background of a moment in which Ben reads through a history book, or take note of adult apathy or creepiness throughout. The atmosphere is so thick that when a scene ends without It revealing itself, it's almost a relief.
If there's any downside to It and its role in the movie, it's that the inevitable moments when jump scares occur, they tend to be accompanied by loud noises and shrieking music. That's not something too out of place in the horror genre, sure, but it often feels like a cheap way to amplify scares that could otherwise be more than effective without them. As a result, the atmospheric tension and anticipation of when (or if) It would show up was often stronger than moments of actual revelation, and though I doubt that will matter much to most audiences - it didn't to the one I saw the film with - it's worth pointing out nonetheless. And to a lesser extent, there was a bit of weak CGI present throughout that was distracting, but fortunately said moments are so brief that they don't detract too much from the film.
As for the kids themselves, they're collectively a strong group of actors, though some shine brighter than others. Finn Wolfhard's Richie steals the show, for example, while Sophia Lillis and Jack Dylan Grazer do great work as Bev and Eddie, respectively. Jaeden Lieberher is sadly a bit underserved as Bill thanks to his character having little personality compared to the others, while Jeremy Ray Taylor's Ben gets to be the film's heart early on before essentially disappearing into the background for the back half after an exposition dump. And while Wyatt Oleff doesn't really get to leave a mark as Stan, the real tragedy here is Chosen Jacobs' Mike, a character with a lot more importance in the book, being almost thoroughly sidelined, absent for a huge chunk of the film before resurfacing almost as an afterthought.
It's hard not to compare this group to, say, the group of kids from last year's Stranger Things, particularly because Wolfhard was a part of both. That group's chemistry was immediately apparent and constantly dynamic, the kids coming off as genuine friends both on and off screen. In It, we barely get to see the kids having fun or bonding outside of their struggle with It, which only serves to make those who already drew the short straw (like Mike or Stan) feel unimportant. Though the film already clocks in at around 135 minutes, It could've benefited from more breathing room for the sake of expanding the Losers, even for just an additional 10 or 15 minutes. As it stands, the group is good, and I personally have no real complaints about the performances, but there's a nagging sensation that the chemistry between them all could've - and should've - been stronger.
Even with the film's faults, though, Muschietti and everyone involved deserves to be commended for getting so much right. As I mentioned earlier, what matters is that the spirit of the book was captured, and that's done admirably, even with several of the characters being shortchanged in the process. This story isn't over, either, as we've still got a Chapter Two to witness involving the adult versions of the Losers, and thus I'm willing to let slide certain baffling changes (like an important character in the adult years seemingly being killed off here) until we've got the complete picture, as there are a number of surprises certainly in store, especially if the sequel dives into the weirder, more cosmic ideas surrounding It present in the book.
Ultimately, It doesn't feel like a total game-changer for the horror genre, but that's okay. What it is is a juicy slice of well-executed entertainment, fueled by a handful of solid performances, a wealth of heart, humor, and scares, and a clear, infectious passion from everyone involved for the material. Its strengths outweigh its shortcomings, with the essence of King's work on display in a way that'll surely satisfy most fans of the book while managing to keep from alienating audiences experiencing the world of It for the first time.
Pick a Month: