It's been ages since a Stephen King film adaptation really hit it out of the park. Finding the last blockbuster based on a King property means going back to 1999's "The Green Mile." That release, telling the emotionally wrenching story of condemned convict John Coffey's last days in a 1930s Louisiana prison, garnered four Academy Award nominations. It also became an instant classic, much like "The Shawshank Redemption" had five years earlier. Since then, though, movies based on Mr. King's work have been a mixed bag of secondary works ("Secret Window"), low-quality sequels ("Children of the Corn: Genesis"), and unnecessary remakes of remakes (a third adaptation of "Carrie" - or fourth, if you count the ill-fated "Carrie: The Musical").
King fans still reeling from last month's "The Dark Tower" fiasco may be approaching the release of "It" with understandable trepidation. Well, King aficionados and curious moviegoers can breathe a sigh of relief: "It" is here, and "It" is good...maybe even bordering on great.
The original novel bridges two time periods, the 1950s and the 1980s, with the tale of a group of self-proclaimed "losers" in a small Maine town who battle an evil entity as pre-teens and must return as adults 27 years later to rejoin the fight. The success of the film adaptation starts with the savvy decision to split the story into two segments by time period, so though the novel shuttles back and forth between the decades, "It" on the big screen deals only with the kids this time around (a sequel focusing on the adult half of the timeline is currently in development). The second smart change is in updating the kids' story from the 1950s to the 1980s, which makes it more accessible as well as capitalizing on the current wave of 80s nostalgia. (It's probably no accident that "It" occasionally conveys a "Stranger Things" vibe.)
For anyone who's not familiar with "It," here's the setup: a creature that preys on children has made its home for several centuries in the sewers of Derry, Maine. Because terror energizes it, it can sense and personify each child's deepest fears. Its default appearance is that of a creepy clown calling itself Pennywise - because really, who's not at least a little bit scared of clowns? Tim Curry's Pennywise portrayal in a 1990 tv adaptation became a fan favorite, and the general feeling was that this new version would rise or fall on the strength of actor Bill Skarsgard's ("The Divergent Series: Allegiant") revised take on the character.
Again, fans can relax: Mr. Skarsgard breaks new ground with an interpretation that's miles away from the 1990 version but just as effective. His Pennywise exudes a tainted, childish glee that occasionally gives way to glimpses of the ancient, alien insanity lurking beneath the unsettling clown makeup. As the kids become aware of Pennywise's long history in Derry they begin seeing his face in old history books and elsewhere, and the net effect, culminating in a slideshow of old family photos where an innocuous image morphs into that grinning clown face, is truly terrifying.
As important as is the character of Pennywise, it's just as vital to have a strong take on the kids who make up the Derry "Losers Club," and again this version of "It" gets that just right. The team of three screenwriter, led by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, "Beasts of No Nation"), deserves high praise for giving their young actors great material to work with. The script retains many of the iconic moments that introduce the Losers in the novel and demonstrate their meshing together as a group, and when the script does veer away from the book it still successfully captures the essence of the developing friendships. The focus is on Bill (Jaden Lieberher, Midnight Special), the group's leader, who bears the guilt of losing younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to Pennywise. Bill's falling into something of a youthful love triangle with Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who's hiding a terrible home life from her friends, and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby new kid who's triggered the psychotic wrath of school bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton).
The other Losers include nervous hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, who developed chops as a teen ghosthunter on "Stranger Things"), bookish, Jewish Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who's African American and a student of Derry's long, troubled history. All the young actors are strong, with Taylor and Lillis standing out in particular. There's a sweet pathos to their chemistry together; she wins him over effortlessly at their first meeting, and Mr. Taylor conveys the longing and heartbreak of unrequited young love beautifully. Ms. Lillis is given a lot to carry in the film - she's a heroic, exotic mystery to the Losers and a frightened child at home dealing with a possibly abusive parent - and she tackles it with verve and heart.
Lillis and Taylor's are two career-launching performances among the kids, and the third is that of Mr. Wolfhard as fast-talking would-be comic Richie, whose bluster hides a terrible fear of the events in Derry. The young actor's comic timing is excellent. His wisecracks put an unexpected spin on weighty scenes, shifting the ensemble energy and buoying the action so things never get bogged down. The whole Losers crew meshes together seamlessly, presenting a snapshot of childhood friendships that feels authentic. It's happily reminiscent of the quartet of friends from "Stand By Me," another hugely successful King adaptation that addressed the pleasures and perils of youth.
Mr. King does tend to focus on those perils. Another element that "It" distills exquisitely from the novel is the sense of childhood's weird combination of tribalism and anarchy. The film perfectly captures the book's feeling of childhood happening at a level below the adult world, subject to its own set of rules - or lack thereof - and fraught with dangers that adults downplay or just don't see at all. In one illustrative scene, a couple trolls slowly by in their aging sedan, peering indifferently out the window at Ben as he's struggling to escape from a knife-wielding bully, and as the car drives away we see an oversized red balloon - the hallmark of Pennywise the clown - bobbing cheerfully in the back window. This blindness extends to Beverly's father who doesn't see that one of his daughter's encounters with the macabre has washed the family bathroom floor to ceiling in blood. It's her tribe, the Losers, who join her in scrubbing away the ghastly mess; and the film demonstrates, better than the book ever could, what a Herculean task such a cleanup would be.
So "It" is gory...but is it scary? Absolutely. It may occasionally lean a bit too heavily on the jump scares, and that would be a problem if it were the only trick in the bag, but happily it's not. "It" bundles up creepy creatures, haunted house eeriness, the dread of relentless pursuers, straight-up gore, and traditional terrors like schoolyard bullies and uncaring adults and whirls them all together into a crazy coaster ride that had viewers at a recent press screening giggling nervously in between panicked shrieks. It's also surprisingly funny; the Losers zing each other with the kind of sharp one-liner put-downs that only close friends can get away with, and there's a cute, 80s-appropriate running gag about someone's secret New Kids on the Block fandom. But boy band haters shouldn't worry: there's plenty of other music to leaven out the Kids, as "It" effectively limns its timeline with tunes from The Cure, The Cult, and XTC.
One possible minus is that the film is long - clocking in at just under 2.5 hours - but if you've read "It," or even seen a copy of it on someone's bookshelf, you had to know that going in. Thinking that a good Stephen King adaptation will be brief is kind of like expecting to see a breezy, short film to be made out of "Foucault's Pendulum": it ain't gonna happen.
Speaking of long, this review has zoomed well past that point, so here's the wrapup: absolutely scary, surprisingly funny, deeper than you'd expect, sweeter than you might hope, a marvelous melding of strong acting and solid writing, this is the Stephen King adaptation that fans have been waiting years for. At long last, "It" lives.
|Summary||Scary, funny, deeper than you'd expect, sweeter than you might hope, this is the Stephen King adaptation that fans have been waiting years for.|