It’s deeper and more relatable fears that allow It it’s most effective scares. That is the truth emanating from the Stephen King source material. Yes, clowns are creepy. Yet the other items that frighten our kid cast here are creepier – those of loss, innocence, bullying, and even free will to just be a young teen.
Andy Muschietti’s version of the King classic moves the book’s actions from the 1950s (when the author was a boy) to 1989, making those Stranger Things comparisons apt. It’s summer in Derry, Maine where the rate of missing persons – especially kids – is astronomical. The prologue shows us how poor little seven-year old Georgie earned his milk carton status. It involves a meeting with demented clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), luring the child into the sewer. Eight months later, Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is desperately trying to find him. He’s part of a group known as The Losers. They include Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s got an undeserved reputation at school for being loose but whose real circumstances are far more terrifying and sad. There’s Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight new kid on the block who coincidentally and humorously is a fan of New Kids on the Block. Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things) is the nerd who can’t keep his foul mouth shut. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac, Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the doubter of the bunch, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the homeschooled orphan. All of The Losers soon experience their own visions of Pennywise and come to realize they must defeat him since no one else seems willing to.
Pennywise’s reign of terror seems to occur every 27 years in Derry, but there’s other issues the kids must deal with each day. Sophia with her abusive dad. Eddie with his overprotective mom. A nasty bully named Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who’s nearly as dangerous as the title character. Ben having to admit his affection for both Sophia and those five crooners from Boston. And so on. Pennywise (with credit to Skarsgard’s performance) does have his moments of heebie jeebie glory, but they usually come with a simple facial expression and most of them are early on. The clown loses a bit of luster when an over reliance on CGI with “It” comes into play. What remains is the genuine creepiness happening with some of the kids daily lives. That trumps the increasingly milder scares involving Pennywise.
It helps tremendously that the performances of the young actors are all first-rate. Sophia Lillis has a young Amy Adams vibe and Lieberher (who already showed his chops in St. Vincent and Midnight Special) is an effective Loser leader. Stephen King was able to subtly write a coming of age story filled with heart that just happened to have a demented circus freak in the mix. Muschietti and his screenwriters pick up on that with this adaptation to mostly satisfying results.
*** (out of four)