Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazier, Wyatt Oleff and Bill Skarsgard
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 15 Mins
It is a pretty tough movie to unpack. Comparisons to the epic length book are inevitable but may not be reasonable (Stephen King’s book clocks in at over 1100 pages). And after the disaster that was The Dark Tower, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to wade through another King adaptation. The truth is while It has a few highlights, two hours of screen time is simply too limited to include what made the book such a success.
In the town of Derry, children are disappearing with frightening frequency. But the terror that grips the little Maine town isn’t quite enough to overshadow the beginning of summer for seven kids, who just want to avoid the town bullies and enjoy their vacation. But for Bill Denbourough, who still holds out hope that his little brother Georgie (one of Derry’s many missing) is still alive somewhere, merely surviving the summer of 1989 becomes the top priority for him and his friends (dubbed the Loser’s Club).
Because as the Losers soon discover, the malevolence responsible for Derry’s growing list of missing children is something far beyond their comprehension. As each has a terrifying, near fatal run in with the demonic Pennywise the Dancing Clown, they begin to suspect that the clown is merely a mask for something much greater and that Pennywise has lived in Derry from the very beginning.
The decision to split the story into two halves-when the Loser’s Club first battle Pennywise as children (the subject of this title)-was a smart one. It allows the story to progress quicker and unencumbered. Modernizing it to 1989 was also a wise idea, making it much easier for audiences to relate and emotionally invest in the kids (on of the secrets behind Stranger Things success). And wether it’s the soundtrack, the pop culture references or the hair styles, the film does a solid job of recreating 1980’s small town America.
Director Andy Muschietti also deserves credit his balancing and pacing of the film. It takes a bit of time to get going, feeling a bit soggy and lethargic at the beginning (kind of like a hazy summer vacation) but it quickly builds some narrative steam. Another impressive feat was the measured use of CGI and special FX. It never loses sight of the role the FX serves-a tool to move the plot along-while too many other films (of all genres) view the story as a clothesline to hang as many effects as they can on. It has plenty of CGI, but the effects never threaten to overshadow the story.
All the young leads deserve kudos as well. Despite the limited format, the kids all manage to form a genuine on-screen bond. You’re more than convinced these kids would willingly walk into a haunted house for one another by the time the credits roll at the end. You’re even convinced of the personal damages some persevere as well, illustrating that plenty of people have to live with human monsters as well. Bill Skarsgard also brings more menace to the role of Pennywise than most people expected; making the performances the strength of this movie.
But in the end, It fails victim to its format and inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s epic. While it was understandable that they would have to cut a lot out to keep the film a manageable length, it feels like they left out some pretty pivotal scenes or explanations. The secret behind why seven random kids are capable of defeating an omnipotent monster who has held an entire town hostage for centuries is never explained. And to that point, the truth behind Derry itself is hinted at but never really explored (despite being intrinsic to the entire story’s plot). While the producers left one unsavoury scene from King’s book out (the sewer sex scene during the kids first battle against Pennywise, a scene I found pretty dubious even as a teenager), I felt leaving out the scene where the Loser’s witness Pennywise’s origin in a smoke hut was a questionable decision (the. movie offers no explanation of what Pennywise truly is).
It flirts with a lot of important narrative stuff, but then moves on without any further exploration.
As a stand alone, It is OK. There are a few genuine moments and It will probably keep you reasonably entertained, but the truth is a movie is simply too short and limited a medium to do a story of this magnitude justice. A Netflix or HBO mini-series could achieve everything the movie does while including some of the more influential material from the book (which the movie excludes). The book’s strength was how it became an immersive story for the reader, and how the characters-whether they were kids or adults-became so vivd. A mini-series, done right, could bring all of that to life and maybe even more (just ask HBO).
If you haven’t read the book, it’s worth checking out after you’ve seen the movie. But if you are a fan of the book, check your expectations at the door and try to let the film breathe and stand on its own.