It (Andy Muschietti, 2016) 2½ out of 4 stars.
I have read many Stephen King novels, and enjoyed a good number of them, including Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter and more (my preference is for the early works). I have not, however, read King’s 1986 novel It, on which this new movie adaptation is based (there was previously a two-part 1990 miniseries made for ABC). That’s probably a good thing, since I went in with zero expectations and had, until about the halfway point, a fine time enjoying the performances of the young cast and the oddities of the plot. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama), working off a script written, in part, by director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Season 1) – who left the project in 2015 – does a fine job with the initial set-up, allowing his actors room to create enjoyable characterizations that make us care about their fate. That it all eventually devolves into horror-genre clichés is unfortunate, but at least we have the solid first half.
The town of Derry, Maine, has a problem. Every once in a while, an evil force emerges from underground to feed on the children, disappearing once its appetite is sated. In a truly terrifying opening, little Georgie Denbrough chases a paper boat through rain-soaked street gutters, laughing all the way until the boat disappears into a drain. Inside that drain lurks a clown in full make-up and fright wig, who seems friendly, at first, until he’s not. Bye-bye Georgie. Flash forward 9 months and it’s the end of the school year, and Georgie’s older brother Bill and his friends, all in late middle school or early high school, by the looks of it, are ready for summer, their joy tempered by the lingering sadness of the many disappearances of the preceding year (George was but the first).
This being a Stephen King story, we know that certain things will probably happen: a) these kids will investigate; b) they are nerds, and will be pursued by bullies; c) there’s a history of bad things in the town; d) you have nothing to fear but fear, itself. I almost expected there to be an Indian burial ground or Magical Negro – frequent King plot devices, as well – but though there is mention of the possibility of the former, and one token person of color (who is, like everyone else, possessed only of the power of his own courage), the movie is otherwise free of those tired tropes. And for a while, as we get to know our protagonists, the film is a delightful romp through comedy and horror, both.
Jaeden Lieberher (The Book of Henry), as Bill, is compelling enough, as are Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s Stranger Things, which this film recalls in many ways), Jeremy Ray Taylor (The History of Us) and Chosen Jacobs (Season 7 of CBS’ Hawaii Five-O) – the one African-American kid among the bunch. But it’s Sophia Lillis (37), as the only girl, and Jack Dylan Grazer (Scales: Mermaids Are Real), as a hilarious neurotic, who steal the show, real standouts among the already solid cast. The adults are not as fully realized, mostly caricatures of either evil or neglect. Even the clown – the otherworldly “it” of the title, who sometimes shapeshifts to reflect the particular nightmare of the beholder – is less than terrifying, especially once the real action starts, at the midpoint, after which we can’t help but feel we’ve seen this stuff before, in every other horror movie. As played by Bill Skarsgård (Simon and the Oaks), Pennywise (as the clown is called) has a devilish grin, and some nice red balloons, but otherwise is not much of a match for his determined adversaries.
Whatever the faults of King’s often predictable plots, he is a master of the creepy backstory, able to layer a sordid, often supernatural, underworld beneath the seeming ordinariness of small-town America. That’s what is lacking here. Sure, we learn something of Derry’s past, but then little of it is used once the violence begins. Why are the adults so troubled? Whence comes Pennywise? An end title informs us that this is but “Chapter 1,” so perhaps these answers lie ahead. Still, despite it’s problems, It is a lot of fun until it forgets to be interesting.