It's a collage of random scary crap (for a liberal value of "scary," to boot) that coheres, at length, into a reasonably awesome kid's adventure in the grand old style of all the kid's adventures to which it wants to be compared: that is, kind of toothless, honestly, but still faintly meaningful and a fair amount of fun.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga (based on the novel by Stephen King)
With Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough), Sophia Lillis (Bev Marsh), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben Hanscom), Finn Wolfhard (Richie Tozier), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie Kaspbrak), Wyatt Olef (Stan Uris), Chosen Jacobs (Mike Hanlon), Nicholas Hamilton (Henry Bowers), and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise)
It just tries too damn hard, is the problem, and in at least two completely different ways. The first, you'll notice, is just how ridiculously aggressively it pursues its Kid's Adventure Stereotypes, just slamming its various child actors right up against the screen in all their brutal Kid's Adventure Shitheelery. But you know what? You get used to that. Soon enough, you even start to like them. You definitely tend to like them better than the bromide-laced plot they inhabit. And that's because It, when it comes to its frenetic attempts at horror, is trying so hard that, by the end, it's just plain counterproductive. Though maybe that's intentional.
After all, the story It tells is familiar enough, at least to fans of Stephen King and the 1990 TV miniseries. In fact, scrap that "at least": it's famous enough that even folks like me, who've never read the novel, nor seen anything of the miniseries beyond that ubiquitous clip of Tim Curry hanging out in a storm drain, still more-or-less know it, and well enough that, in It's adaptation of King's 1100+ page tome—and, yeah, the exclamation point is implied—we still can't help but be keenly aware that a huge amount of material got left out. The cuts often have more to do with censoring King's peculiar id, both in terms of its content (no train shall be run upon a pubescent girl by six pubescent boys, which I assume is for the best) and in terms of its unfiltered goofiness (there aren't any cosmic turtle gods, either, which is too bad). But, above all, a theatrical release was never going to be an apt container for King's prolificity, and his epic doorstopper's structure is definitively absent in this film, which the closing credits suggest is officially titled It: Chapter One. While I'm not remotely sure this actually helps, I'm dead certain it leaves a ticking time-bomb for Chapter Two—namely, a new cast of adult actors running through something close to the same plot and with no reasonable expectations whatsoever that anyone in the audience could even slightly care. (Maybe they'll pull a Linklater, and wait 27 years.) But, left firmly in place—at least, I think it is—is King's allegory, which is what folks seem to really enjoy, and It does have something to say about the intensity of our childhood fears, and of the tenderness of our childhood attachments.
So this It is dedicated to telling the "past" half of It's story (along with updating it to 1989, so that the second film can take place in 2016, though the clearly-intentional side-effect here is to remind us way, way too much of The Goonies, E.T., and Stranger Things, with which It happens to share a performer). And that brings us to Derry, Maine, and the terrible thing that lives in the sewers beneath its streets. Indeed, that's where we begin, following little Georgie and his little paper boat down the block during a thrashing storm, whereupon he makes the acquaintance of one Pennywise, the Dancing Clown—and such was the end of Georgie, who's described as "missing," though everybody but Georgie's brother, Bill, knows "missing" actually means "dead."
Thus do Bill (the stuttering one) and his fellow middle school scrubs Richie (the wisecracking one), Eddie (the hypchondriac one), and Stan (I hate to say "the Jewish one," so let's call him "the especially whiny one" instead) enter their summer, under a pall of tragedy. But, between their run-ins with that evergreen Stephen King trope (that is, a gang of bullies of such fierce dedication to their bullying that they'll chase their victims into a sewer and still not consider their work finished), and between their encounters with a few new members of their soon-to-be-christened "Loser's Club," Ben (the fat one), Bev (yes, the girl one), and Mike (as with Bev, it's hard not to designate him "the black one"), they begin to perceive that Georgie's disappearance was just the smallest part of an enduring design that spans centuries—and dimensions.
But by "begin to perceive," of course, I mean to say that they're each confronted with full-on, balls-to-the-wall psychic attacks almost the very moment we learn their names. And that's exactly how It's cardinal sin manifests. Take It's soundscape, alternating between loudness as a substitute for actual scariness and some exasperatingly, eye-rollingly "ironic" music cues (which are so cliche, by this point, as to not actually register as ironic), such as the circus music that actively undercuts the intrusive creepiness of a party balloon floating with seeming agency through Ben's quiet library. Or take Chung Chung-hoon's cinematography, which isn't nearly as overtly offensive as It's sound design, but isn't much more inspired, turning every last interior set into an exercise in artful grottiness and carefully-mottled shadows, right up to the edge of diminishing returns. Or, finally, take just one of Pennywise's panoply of illusions: a trio of doors, marked "Scary," "Very Scary," and "Not Scary At All," which winds up coming off almost as nothing but a set-decoration gag, rather than anything actually involving the characters.
Still, director Andy Muschietti's constant resort to imagery without structure, and his emphasis on the animal panic "It" inspires (rather than an abiding dread), might've worked out perfectly well, if only it were part of a movie that had any real, gut-felt stakes. We know our stakes here, sure enough. But those stakes erode a little more each time our titular monster—a nigh-omnipotent shapeshifter from beyond the Source Wall, or something like that—can't manage to kill anybody if they're anything more than a featured extra, or (more typically still) anything more than an offscreen notion altogether.
Now, I know: there's the source material to contend with, for one, and for two, it's straight-up self-defeating to expect any supernatural horror not to screw around. It is, after all, in the finest tradition of supernatural horror to spend the majority of its time screwing around. But supernatural horror's success is grounded in atmosphere, in tension: It goes out of its way to affirmatively demonstrate it doesn't care about those, while never completely justifying its panic-mode, either. (If I didn't properly imply that the cast list is far too long for a horror story where nobody on it dies, let me say so now, explicitly.) There's an explanation, of course, in the idea that the titular Its sustenance isn't meat alone, but the seasoning of fear; but by the fifth or sixth time Its victims escapes Its clutches, it's awfully, awfully hard to get away from the impression that Muschietti is just playing with his demon's food.
So there it is: almost every scare sequence throughout the whole first hour (and the fact that there's something like a dozen of 'em suggests something of the issue) would be better if it were cut roughly in half, usually before Pennywise himself appears in one of his various guises, always full of sound and fury, and always signifying very little real danger. The two exceptions are the first, which frankly doesn't fit all that easily into the way Pennywise spends the rest of the film toying with our principals; and the visitation It makes to poor Bev, which provides It its most vivid image, a bathroom sink erupting with blood, spraying the fluorescent fixtures and changing the lighting into something rather more memorable than "obscured." It helps that the bathroom setpiece is so (comparatively) restrained; it definitely helps that it concludes with one of It's few genuinely unnerving moments, where the concept, rather than the visuals alone, gets to do some of the horror-movie heavy-lifting. And it helps, also, that it leads into a scene that feels like a grace note, rather than a bludgeoning scare or a plot machination: the Losers spending at least an hour mopping up blood that doesn't actually exist outside their own heads.
But then, most of the scenes with the Losers—outside of those bludgeons and machinations, anyway—feel pretty graceful, in their shitheeled way, and It finds salvation with its child actors, who fill out their stock roles with a truly impressive amount of sincerity. Even the ones the script ought to have executed might've been missed if it had (although this underlines why their deaths would've been helpful). It turns into a friendly three-way race for the best-in-show honors: Sophia Lillis, who might actually be a proper discovery, and who grants both ambiguity and strength to Bev, neither one of which are wholly in the script itself; Jeremy Ray Taylor, who makes for an excellent "fat one" in a movie that's at least glancingly interested in the melancholy of being the fat one; and Finn Wolfhard, our Stranger Things alum, who's so intoxicated with the pleasure of getting to work blue that you don't even mind that he's only occasionally successfully funny with it.
So Jaeden Lieberher, the best thing about Midnight Special, a failed "kid's adventure" of outright staggering ill-conception, is the fourth-best thing here—but that's still pretty good!
Luckily for everyone, It casts away much of its shapelessness once the kids confirm Pennywise's reality, and with this the pace noticeably quickens. (Honestly, it probably slows down, but It, if nothing else, is an object lesson in how turning the dial up to eleven and keeping it there doesn't always make a movie feel shorter—and whether or not 135 minutes was the right length for a horror movie, or a kid's adventure movie, or even a King adaptation, when such things traditionally run about a hundred, it's hard to argue here that it's efficiently spent.)
But I do want to be clear: for all it feels like Muschietti thinks he's running a haunted house ride, or a museum of scare sequences, it is still a rather well-mounted one—and one with a most suitably grotesque guide. No, I'm not entirely sold on Bill Skarsgard's performance as It's mercurial abomination: all the nice things he does with his eyes and his lips tend to be undone by the thudding obviousness of Muschietti's staging, not to mention the one-note frenzy of Skarsgard's reads. But the pure visualization of Pennywise—with Skarsgard as the foundation for a character whose terror is so entirely bound up in his iconography? (And who, in this film, is mostly lunging CGI anyway?) That is close to pitch-perfect, or, at least as pitch-perfect as an evil clown could get in 2017. And since that's truly unfair, you can rightly call this Pennywise—with his antique faded silver ruffles, wispy orange crown, and scissorlike overbite—a legitimate designers' triumph. Sometimes even the very aggravating vagueness of It's powers manages to work in It's favor: the best-made scene in the film, involving an evil slide projector and a claustrophobic garage that stutters into full darkness between each demon-possessed slide, might really only be one more go-nowhere fright module—but I'll admit that for all it doesn't matter, it grabs ahold of "scary" based on nothing but good cinema alone. (I only kind of wish Chung had blacked out the damn windows and taped over the garage door, so the true guiding grace of this scene, editor Jason Ballantine, wasn't working with such blatant artificiality.)
Even so, it's enough of a good middle to forgive a climax that's only modestly sensible, and a little grindingly drawn-out (considering that It has no authentic physicality, one's not exactly honor-bound to be enthusiastic about a physical confrontation). And, if one were feeling extraordinarily charitable toward the picture, you could say that It matches form and function with some ingenuity. That is, if what our heroes have learned about the nature of fear is that it only holds power over you if you let it, then what Muschietti's done is stamp his whole movie with that idea, for It starts off upsetting, remains startling, continues to bash you in the head with image after putatively-terrifying image, until ultimately you just get numb to it, so, by the end, when it tries to make you scream, you shrug. If Muschietti meant to do it, that's even smart. Not entirely satisfying—but smart.