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Movie Review: "It" Is An Inspired Adaptation That Will Please Current Fans And Create New Ones

Starring Jaden Leiberher, Sopphia Lillis, 
Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard,  
Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazier
and Bill Skarsgård 
Based on the novel by Stephen King
Screenplay Chase Palmer & Cary Fukanaga 
and Gary Dauberman 
Directed by Andy Muschietti

Reviewed by Paul & Patrick Gibbs

 Out of Four

Tim Curry s Pennywise in the 1990 version of Stephen King's  It
(Image Courtesy ABC Television)
In the interest of full disclosure, we wish to start this review by stating that we've never found clowns scary, and we were scared of just about everything when we were children. But we had a night light named "Clownie" who was our protector, and warded off anything that went bump in the night. When we were 8 years old, we won a contest to appear as clowns in the Shrine Circus, and a few of the real clowns liked us so much that we were invited back, and one clown in particular, "Jimbo," became like another grandfather to us. When we saw Poltergeist,  we were upset because that boy was hurting the clown doll. The point we're trying to make here is that the basic hook that seems to work so easily on others simply isn't a factor for us. If you want to know "is this Pennywise going to give me nightmares?", you're reading the wrong review.

That being said, the 1990 television miniseries version of It definitely scared us quite a bit. It wasn't about the clown: it was about the abduction and murdering of children, the idea of our greatest fears targeting us individually. At the time, it was the most intense thing we'd seen since . . . well, since Poltergeist. That lead to reading the book, which makes the miniseries look pretty tame. This was our introduction to Stephen King, the master storyteller who can hook you in like nobody else, keeping you riveted to the page or screen until the very end, which is, unfortunately, usually the stupidest damn conclusion for any story you have ever read/seen

"We all float down here."
(Image Courtesy New Line Cinema)
The film beings in late 1988. In the town of Derry, Maine,  Bill (Jaeden Lieberher,  St. Vincent, Midnight Special, The Book of Henry) builds a toy boat for his brother Georgie one morning during a rainstorm. When Georgie goes own to sail the boat, he meets a mysterious figure hiding in the sewer. The figure (Bill Skarsgaard) introduces himself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, acting whimsical and friendly at first. But by the time Georgie realizes something is wrong, it is too late, and he is dragged down into the sewer.

The story then moves to summer, 1989, and introduces us to the rest of "The Loser's Club": overweight and nerdy Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazier),who lives with his overbearing mother, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) who lives with her abusive father, comical Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef, the young Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy), a Jewish boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and outcast Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), an African-American boy who is home schooled and isolated from the rest of the children. These kids are all tormented by a gang of local bullies, but that is the least of their worries. Georgie is not the only kid to disappear in Derry, and The Losers all have experiences they can't explain that play upon their innermost fears, and more than one of them sees a mysterious clown.

 Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise
(Image Courtesy New Line Cinema)
The film is a remarkable realization of King's book, and much better than anyone really had any reason to expect. For those of us who were the age of the Loser's Club in the era around 1986 (the release of the book) and 1990 (the year the miniseries aired), the choice to set the story at the end of the '80's manages to feel much more true to the spirit than keeping it in it's original setting of 1960. While small changes have been made here and there, the story and characters have been richly and fully realized on the big screen. It's the characters and the psychology of It that makes it a classic, and director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has a terrific grasp of the layers upon layers going on here, and the juxtaposition of childish, irrational fear and terrifying reality. He can also pull off a Dutch angle and moody lighting like a pro, and we suspect a behind the camera star may be emerging.

The young cast is extraordinary, with each one of them delivering a layered, sophisticated and nuanced performance that belies their age (and in many cases, lack of screen credits.). It's difficult to name stand outs among them, because they are all so good. Lieberher has become one of the most reliable actors of his generation in a short time though for us he had the hardest role, stepping into the shadow of the late Jonathan Brandis, who excellently portrayed Bill in the miniseries), but he makes it his own, and Wolfhard shows that he can play something very different from his Stranger Things character, even in a very similar type of film. Taylor's Ben is incredibly lovable, and Grazier and Lillis show genuine star potential. Olef and Jacobs are extremely solid in the most underwritten roles. The second biggest challenge awaiting Chapter Two (behind Stephen King's original ending) is that it won't have this cast.  Even if Muschietti casts Oscar-caliber Hollywood stars as the adult versions of the Losers Club, these kids will be a tough act to follow. Skarsgård does a capable job in the role and is appropriately creepy (but if you want to be terrified, check out Will Poulter, who was originally cast in the role, in Detroit.).

For a film like this starring such a young cast, it's worth noting that this is not a film aimed at young audiences. It embraces its R (18) rating, mostly for language, but there is enough blood and disgusting substances to appease horror fans (though it's not piled it on as severely nor an indiscriminately as you might expect.). It also deals with some real-world themes that are much more disturbing than demonic clowns, such as Beverly's father, whose affections toward her have a very non-fatherly feel. But while the film goes much farther than the miniseries did, it's still toned down considerably from the novel, thankfully omitting the bizarre sexual content and some of the more disturbing elements involving bully Henry Bowers and his gang (though as to be expected in a Stephen King story, the bullies will all be serial killers or praised by the President of the United States as "very fine people" when they grow up.). Which is not to say that the film feels in any way watered-down, just that it is less swallowed by a need to be screwed up and disturbing. King was famously inebriated when the book was written, and this is kind of It after it's been through rehab.

Where this summer's adaptation of The Dark Tower was huge disappointment to the fans who had dreamed of a Lord The Ring's style big screen version, this will likely be welcomed with excited and open arms, and a surge in sales of the book is imminent. This certainly ranks among the top tier of cinematic adaptations of Stephen King's works. It, Chapter Two will be among the most eagerly awaited geek films in the coming years.

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