IT, based on Stephen King’s landmark 1986 novel, strives to be more than just the story of an evil clown haunting a group of kids but frequently, and unfortunately, settles for less.
Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is the titular “It,” a monster of eldritch nature who feeds on the tender meat of the frightened citizens of Derry, Maine. Pennywise prefers children — their meat is tastiest — and it hypnotizes its victims by creating illusions of their most deep-down fears.
Hypochondriac? Here’s a leper. Dracula? A vampire. An abusive father? Hello, Dad. Pennywise emerges every 27 years to feast, and in the summer of 1988 takes the life of little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). The Georgie scene is already a pop culture classic thanks to both the book and the 1990 miniseries adaptation, and this one holds up. Unfortunately the rest of the movie lacks the same charm and tension.
That’s a shame because the cast of kids who rise up to their fears to face down Pennywise are fantastic. The rest of the story is told over the course of summer 1989 as Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Georgie’s older brother, leads his group of outcast friends in a quest to find the culprit behind Derry’s missing children.
Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is a new kid teased for his weight; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) is Bill’s loudmouth best buddy; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a worrywart with an overbearing mother; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is facing his Bar Mitzvah, burdened by the expectations of his rabbi father. Rounding out the group are Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the true standout performance and character as a young woman facing adulthood and the horrors of men in a way the boys could never hope to understand, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the group’s sole black member whose role is cut brutally short, almost to the level of token member.
Each of the “Losers” gang faces seven individual encounters with Pennywise before coming together, and this is where the movie runs off the rails. Each of these encounters play out almost identically. Director Andy Muschietti has one trick up his sleeve and deploys it over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Pennywise always takes the form of a character’s fear but his process is frequently the same; there’s never any sense that the scares are constructed around each character’s individual trauma. In almost every instance Pennywise just jumps out after a little visual buildup. The sole exception is Beverly’s moment and — well, it’s a cool sequence.
Frustratingly, this sense of repetition without real escalation permeates the entire script (written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga [originally set to direct] and Gary Dauberman). The story has two climaxes that aren’t given proper setup, leading to sequences that drag endlessly forward with little emotional weight.
As a fan of the book I find it very difficult not to lapse into a fanboy mentality of “Why didn’t you just do it like the book?” This film has all the raw materials to use horror as an expression of something meaningful about childhoodm, finding your people, overcoming trauma and horror, and how adulthood changes everything (and not always for the better). And yet … it doesn’t capitalize on them
Adding to the problem is a downright ham-fisted musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch. Wallfisch composed a great suite for Pennywise, but the rest of the music is generic, on-the-nose and overbearing, telling you how you should feel at every moment. It’s unpleasant and one of the film’s greatest weaknesses.
The task of adapting a multi-timeline 1,100 page novel is always going to result in missing material. The novel features two stories: the Losers as kids and the Losers as adults. This second story is going to be part of IT: Chapter 2, which is assured given this film’s box office success. Yet there’s so much wasted space in IT, so many choices that only weaken the central themes and make for a movie that feels glacial when it should feel revelatory.
The cast is astounding and the pieces are there but, ultimately IT is nothing more than a movie about a scary clown preying on kids.