Pennywise, ladies and gentlemen! (Photo: Warner)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Andy Muschietti
STARS Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis
In its original hardcover incarnation, Stephen King’s It ran 1,138 pages, second only to The Stand’s 1,153 pages in terms of finding the prolific author at his wordiest. Given that generous length, it’s not surprising that It (and The Stand, for that matter) found itself being fitted for a television miniseries slot rather than a motion picture release, resulting in a 192-minute two-parter on ABC back in 1990. Of course, in this era in which many popular books are split up into two or three movies (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 & 2 and The Hobbit trilogy, for example), it’s almost expected to find a studio willing to allow King’s tome a chance to breathe by spreading its story across two theatrical releases.
Billed in the closing credits as Chapter One, the big-screen version of It spends the entirety of its 135-minute running time on the kids that comprise the book’s gang of Losers, with the adult variations of these characters placed in deep-freeze until the inevitable sequel hits theaters in the near-future. It’s a logical way to split the property, and what’s offered in this first part is mostly good stuff.
Front and center, of course, is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the evil entity that’s kidnapping and killing the children of a small Maine town in 1989. Bill Skarsgård needs some help from the CGI gods to make his Pennywise as memorable as Tim Curry’s superb interpretation from the miniseries, but he nevertheless does a fine job of bringing this monster to life. The seven kids playing the members of the self-anointed Losers Club, reluctantly ready to do battle against Pennywise, are perfectly cast, with Sophia Lillis as Bev, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, and Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben particularly memorable (rounding out the septet are St. Vincent’s Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as Richie, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley). Indeed, the sequences in which the kids merely relate to one another are among the film’s strongest, stirring memories of the exquisite Stand By Me (another adaptation of a King property). These scenes never wear out their stay, which can’t be said of a couple of the extended horror set-pieces that verge on overkill.
Interestingly, the 1990 miniseries was at its best when it centered on the adolescent protagonists — despite solid turns by Richard Thomas, John Ritter and others, the adult portions weren’t quite as compelling, ultimately crippled by a downright disappointing denouement. This new It is a respectable addition to the King cinematic canon, but it will be the adults-only second installment that similarly will make or break the overall project.