Last summer, the surprise hit Stranger Things did more than turn a minor character with tragic fashion sense into a social media sensation. (#BarbsNotTHATGreatGuys.) It stoked interest in the 1980s work of Stephen King — especially in It, another horror adventure in which a band of kids fight a monster whose existence goes unnoticed by adults. The summer phenom must have warmed the hearts of execs at New Line, who had finally started shooting their big-screen adaptation of that novel.
Now It is upon us, in a summer that saw another long-awaited Stephen King project, The Dark Tower, arrive to shrugging shoulders. This film, directed by Andy Muschietti (after intended helmer Cary Fukunaga fell out with the studio two years ago), has a much easier job than Tower did, telling the first half of a story that starts in the ‘80s and (in a planned sequel) ends in roughly the present day. Its biggest challenges are finding a group of kid thesps with chemistry, and making its eponymous villain as creepy as Tim Curry was in the well-liked 1990 miniseries adaptation. Succeeding more on the first front than the second, It is a solid thriller that works best when it is most involved in its adolescent heroes’ non-monster-related concerns. It will prove much more satisfying to King’s legion of fans than Tower did. But it falls well short of the King-derived film it clearly wants to evoke, Stand by Me, and newcomers who were spoiled by the eight richly developed hours of Stranger Things may wonder what the big deal is supposed to be.
To be sure, the picture’s villain gets an entrance as unsettling as any viewer could hope for. Pennywise the clown, played by Bill Skarsgard, is lurking in a sewer when a young boy comes across him. With Bugs Bunny-sized incisors and a lilting voice, he’s almost obscenely ingratiating as he offers the boy the paper boat he has lost. Soon the boy, too, is lost.
Several months later, that boy’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has not stopped believing he is alive somewhere, waiting to be rescued. He theorizes that Georgie was caught up in rainwater and washed out to the far reaches of the sewer system, and to their credit, three of his friends are willing to brave the muck and help him look. Bullied at school, the boys think of themselves as losers, and they soon add a few outcasts to their crew — one of them a pretty girl.
The members of the Losers Club are broadly sketched — one stutters, one is fat; one’s a hypochondriac, one (Richie, played by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard) a joker. (If the straight-laced Stan, played by Wyatt Oleff, feels comparatively underdeveloped, readers of the novel will understand why.) As for Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who is rumored to be promiscuous, she’s actually an innocent coping with her father’s unsavory attentions.
The group works together very nicely, and many viewers will wish for more hangout time with them — watching as the boys compete for Beverly’s attention, get on each other’s nerves and form strategies for avoiding their tormentor Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton).
But this isn’t Stand by Me, and these kids have a monster to fight. Pennywise, we learn, is a shapeshifter who can take on whatever form is most frightening to his victim. And the film gets right into those hauntings, with a series of sequences in which, targeted when each is alone, the kids seemingly hallucinate horrible things. Though effective individually, the scenes don’t build upon each other to fill us with dread. And they would benefit from a few more practical effects mixed in with the CG, especially if Muschietti wants to milk some retro pleasures from his setting. (The screenplay has moved the book’s first section from the 1950s to 1989.)
Chubby, sweet Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who hides from mockery in the library, learns that “It” has been haunting this town for generations, reappearing every 27 years to feed on local children for a while; soon, the kids use old maps to figure out where he hides. The final act takes place down in the sewers and gives the kids a satisfying opportunity to team up and fight through everything that scares them. But as for It itself: Being all fears to all people is a big job, and the movie doesn’t give Skarsgard enough opportunities to develop the terrifying persona we saw at the beginning.
Fear not, though: The actor should get another crack at things in Chapter Two, when the Losers have grown up and must reunite to save their hometown from It a second time.
Production companies: Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, Katzsmith
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Producers: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg, Barbara Muschietti
Executive producers: Dave Neustadter, Walter Hamada, Richard Brener, Toby Emmerich, Marty P. Ewing, Doug Davison, Jon Silk, Niija Kuykendall
Director of photography: Chung-Hoon Chung
Production designer: Claude Pare
Costume designer: Janie Bryant
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting director: Rich Delia
Rated R, 134 minutes