Movie Review: “It” (R)

Movie Review: "It"Stephen King’s epic horror novel “It,” which was already adapted as a 1990 TV mini-series starring a terrifying Tim Curry, finally gets an upgrade in the form of this much edgier big-screen treatment. It’s been a long road for this film. “True Detective” season one helmer Cary Fukunaga was originally on board to make this movie before stepping away from the project due to creative differences. The talented filmmaker behind “Sin Nombre” and “Beasts of No Nation” would, however, maintain a screenplay credit. Eventually, “Mama” director Andy Muschietti would be brought in to direct “It,” and despite all the bumps in the road, this movie emerges as the strongest King adaptation since 2007’s “The Mist.”

To streamline King’s incredibly dense novel, Muschietti and screenwriters Fukanaga, Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman have opted to split the book, which is over 1,100 pages long, into two chapters.  This first film, chapter one, essentially focuses on a group of kids and their plight to overthrow evil. An upcoming follow-up will focus on these youngsters as adults, presumably doing battle with that same evil. The filmmaking team behind this adaptation have also shifted the setting from the ’50s to the ’80s, giving this movie a nostalgic sensibility that will certainly bring to mind “Stranger Things” — which itself was partly inspired by the likes of King’s many iconic works in the first place.

In “It,” a group of bullied kids referred to as the Losers band together to take on an ancient evil force that attacks the sleepy little town of Derry every 27 years. Interestingly, this new version of “It” opens 27 years after the TV miniseries premiered. Coincidence? This evil force often appears in the form of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a fiendish clown with an appetite for child flesh. It should be noted, though, that Pennywise the Dancing Clown is but a smaller part of a much greater evil that essentially uses its victims’ fears against them.

With no one to turn to, the parents of Derry appear to be of little help. Lovable losers Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard — yes, that’s his real name … badass, isn’t it?), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) decide to wage war against Pennywise on their own. What transpires is a story that is as unsettling as it is heartfelt.

“It” greatly benefits from an emphasis on character and a surprising amount of patience. The horror element is certainly on display. There are scares (some of them of the cheap variety) and creep out moments galore (I don’t think I’ll ever look at a mattress in quite the same way again), but Muscheitti and crew have paid so much attention to these kids and their unwavering bond that it’s ultimately what truly makes this film work. At the heart of this story of pure evil tearing through an entire town is a group of misfit friends who discover that it’s their very bond that makes them powerful. This not only applies to their run-ins with an overly callous town bully (Nicholas Hamilton) but in their many encounters with Pennywise as well.

Through it all, the rapport among these youthful cast members is always at the forefront of “It.” Even when they’re being typical smart aleky kids, dissing each other and getting into fistfights brought on by enormous pressure, there’s never any doubt that there isn’t a single thing these friends wouldn’t do for one another.

All seven kids here are fantastic and bring their own individual flavor to the table, but the standouts are Lieberher (who also turned in great work in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special”), Lillis, and Taylor. As the stuttering leader of the Losers, Lieberher brings a quiet toughness to the role of a boy who is emotionally distraught over the disappearance of his younger brother. As the sweet and smart Ben, Taylor brings charm and likability in spades. As the lone female member of the Losers, Lillis is a star in the making. She’s strong but vulnerable and has the ability to melt hearts with a single smile. Just ask Bill and Ben.

As the evil Pennywise, there was pretty much no way that Skarsgard was going to be able to escape the inevitable comparisons to Curry’s unforgettable portrayal of the character in 1990. To his great credit, though, he does manage to make the role his own. In the early goings, he’s inviting when he needs to be before showing his genuinely frightening true colors. Skarsgard deserves further props for being able to move one eye to the side, making for a dead stare that you’re not likely to forget. That wasn’t digital, folks. Skarsgard actually did that on his own. Creepy stuff.

It would have been amazing to see what the gifted Fukunaga would have done with this film, but It’s clear that a passionate Muschietti cares deeply about this source material, and he’s done good by King’s novel. Yes, some liberties have been taken (Mike Hanlon is a bit shortchanged here), and yes, there are parts of this movie that don’t quite work. As previously stated, town bully Henry Bowers is overly callous, almost comically so, and he isn’t given a whole lot of backstory. A moment when he carves into helpless Ben’s belly with a knife seems wildly over-the-top. The script addresses his reckless and volatile behavior but not to the point that it’s acceptable on a rational level. That said, it should be noted that we’ve been witness to crazed bullies in other Stephen King stories as well (see Kiefer Sutherland’s wicked Ace in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of “Stand By Me”), so this isn’t exactly new terrain for the famed author.

Beyond that, yes, there are a few cheap jump scares, and there are moments when some of the obvious CG effects shots are on the distracting side, particularly during the final act. But by and large, Muschietti and crew have knocked “It” out of the park, especially when stacked up against the recently released “The Dark Tower,” a movie so condensed that it almost feels like an afterthought. This movie does provide sufficient creep-out moments, some of which you might not even initially be aware of. Pay close attention to the elderly lady in the background during a scene in which Ben does some research in a library. It’s a tiny nuance, but it might just be the eeriest moment in the entire movie. “It” also brings a fair share of humor to the proceedings. There’s an ’80s band reference in this picture that makes for one of the biggest laughs of the year.

Yes, “It” delivers the goods on the horror front, but quite honestly, the horror is secondary to the character work. This is a great coming-of-age story. I enjoyed spending time with these Losers (mostly because I could relate to them), and again, that’s the key to this film’s overall success, because it helps when you actually care about the individuals being targeted by evil.

Where does “It” rest amongst King’s cinematic collection? Well, this particular fan sights “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Dead Zone,” “Creepshow,” “Stand By Me,” “The Shining,” (true, it strays from the source, but it’s still a brilliant motion picture experience),  “Carrie” (1976), and “Misery” as the best of the best, but this entertaining adaptation of what is perhaps King’s most beloved novel certainly isn’t that far behind. Now bring on chapter two.

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