Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård
Man, this is a strange movie. The movie is strange from the narrative perspective. The movie is strange from the psychological perspective. The movie is strange from the commentary perspective. The movie is strange from a meta perspective (starring one of the boys from Stranger Things, an obvious derivative of Stephen King’s novel It, of which this film is based). This movie is strange from the tone, to the look, to the mood, right down to the challenge of writing a review about It, that doesn’t confuse the title with the non-gender, singular English pronoun, “it,” when referencing It… at least not by accident.
Fans of It have already seen their beloved coming of age horror hit the screen once before, albeit the small screen. The 1990 mini-series based on King’s novel was very well received and has more or less stood the test of time, partially thanks to the ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Tim Curry, Harry Anderson, and Jonathan Brandis. That version’s pervasiveness in pop culture is likely the reason it took so long to get it on the big screen…that and the book’s 1,138 page length (King’s second longest novel next to The Stand).
It opens in the quiet little town of Derry, Maine with that same thrilling, iconic, and horrifying scene that opens the novel as well as the 1990 mini-series, only this time Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) live in the 1980s. The decision to shift the time period from the 1950s to the 1980s is a good one, as King meant for the childhood of these characters to be based on their adult lives being contemporary. I won’t spoil the events of the opening scene, but suffice it to say, the tension is ultra high and Bill Skarsgård’s first appearance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown does not disappoint.
Strange things are happening in Derry, Maine following the tragic events that unfold in the film’s opening scene. Summer is here, school is out, and kids are disappearing. A group of kids find themselves united by some strange visions they’ve all experienced, all of which include the presence of an evil clown figure. “The Loser’s Club,” as they’ve come to be known includes the aforementioned Bill, chubby intellectual Ben, (Jerry Ray Taylor), chatterbox Richie (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), neurotic Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), outcast Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and eventually the ultimate fish out of water, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) whose backstory is only hinted at in this film, but will most likely play a much larger role in the upcoming second chapter.
The Losers all have one goal: to find, stop and kill the strange clown-like being that haunts their lives, preys on their fears, and attacks the children of Derry. Well, that and to avoid the dreaded bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who makes a strong case for being even more threatening than the shape-shifting, demonic, clown monster!
It is mostly a pretty impressive effort. The film oozes with the horror tropes expected with the genre, but also manages to successfully execute the careful tonal shifts that made the book so beloved and treasured for all of these years. The length was certainly a challenge to overcome, and thankfully, director Andy Muschietti and the film’s three screenwriters made the evolved decision to focus only the young protagonists’ story in this film (the novel bounces back and forth between two timelines separated by 27 years). This decision allows the narrative to breathe and not feel too jumbled and busy by trying to capture so many characters in so many different situations. This also all but guarantees a follow-up film that will tackle the story of the adult Losers Club (the $123 million opening weekend probably didn’t hurt the chances of a sequel either). As a matter of fact, the young stars of the film have already selected who they think should play them as adults, and if I may say so – these are some great choices! Still, the film is solid as a stand-alone story on its own.
Speaking of the kids, films like this can easily survive and thrive with one-dimensional performances from the child actors. However, this film decided to ignore that laziness and cast the most perfect and outstanding group of young actors I’ve seen on film in some time. Mostly unknowns, each of these kids found a way to be memorable, convincing, and most of all authentic to his or her character from the book, allowing the film maker to spend more time with these characters and develop them well. So instead of a 100 minute thrill-ride, we got a 135 minute opus that feels eventful, crafted, and most of all, fun!
Here I am rambling on, and I have not even gotten to Bill Skarsgård yet. “It” can’t be easy
to step into the great Tim Curry’s oversized shoes (a pun I expect will be commonly found in reviews of this film) as Pennywise. However, Skarsgård’s performance, while clearly inspired by Curry is very much his own. He succeeds in the same way that Heath Ledger succeeded in taking on the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight after Jack Nicholson played him in 1989’s Batman (we’ll leave the Jared Leto version out for now). It’s a grimier, dirtier, more macabre Pennywise. In fact, the 1989 Batman film is listed on the marquis of the Derry town cinema; perhaps a reference to this dual “clown” generational performance, or perhaps just a hint at Warner Brothers’ Justice League coming out this fall.
Are there flaws here? Sure. At the end of the day, this is another reboot; a term becoming all too common in the mainstream entertainment world. What’s that one thing that was popular just long ago enough to be slightly outdated, but also nostalgically relevant? Let’s remake it! I’m not saying It is not a film worth making, but when it comes to criticism and recommending whether you should go spend your money or not, originality matters. Still, this still manages to “float” above the standard fare for the horror genre, and wisely attempts to tap into not just the horror but the heart as well. B+
It is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.