“IT” may be the first movie I’ve ever liked simply because of how much it reminds me of other things I like. And trying to determine whether that makes it good or the cinematic equivalent of an Elvis impersonator left my brain tied in a knot.
Director Andy Muschietti’s (“Mama”) adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s classic novel is most obviously influenced by “Stand By Me,” another King adaptation, and “Stranger Things.” “IT’s” breakout star, Finn Wolfhard, is a core cast member of “Stranger Things.” And the Duffer Brothers, who created that Netflix series, have cited “IT” as part of their show’s DNA.
So if some of the best parts of “IT” the movie are taken from a series that took some of its best parts from “IT” the book, does that make “IT” the movie better or worse because its source material inspired its inspiration?
Somewhere, likely in Maine, Stephen King is collapsing in on himself.
As even people who’ve never read the book likely know, “IT” opens with young Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) making a paper boat for his little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), and sending him out in the rain to play with it. Georgie chases it down the street until it’s swept into a storm drain, where he encounters Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard). Georgie is never seen again.
He’s just one of several children to go missing in Derry, Maine, which by the next summer has instituted a 7 p.m. curfew. That’s the summer of 1989, by the way, one of the biggest changes from the novel that opens in the 1950s. The new setting makes Georgie and the paper boat seem more than a little out of place. Something tells me there wasn’t a child alive in 1988 who was still doing that. Although I’m not sure there ever was a time when a child was innocent enough to fall under the sway of a sewer clown.
Bill is the de facto leader of the self-described Losers Club, which also includes foul-mouthed jokester Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), whose defining characteristic is that he’s about to be bar mitzvahed. Along the way, they pick up fellow outcasts Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby new kid and amateur local historian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who has an undeserved reputation as being easy; and home-schooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs).
When Bill can no longer stand the guilt of having stayed indoors that fateful day instead of looking after Georgie, he begins searching the sewers for answers, with the others — some much more reluctantly than others — following his lead.
The genius of “IT” isn’t the way Pennywise preys on each kid’s deepest fears, although that makes for some haunting imagery. Instead, it comes in the manner in which director Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”) capture King’s belief that some of the greatest monsters walk among us. Town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) isn’t just mean, he’s a full-fledged sociopath. And pretty much every adult in Derry is embodied with some degree of evil.
“IT” mostly eschews jump scares in favor of scenes that will wake you up in the middle of the night screaming a couple of weeks later. And, unlike traditional horror movies, its characters aren’t making horrible decisions for no good reason. They’re making horrible decisions for the greater good. Sure, they’re all in various stages of puberty, but they’re determined to rid Derry of this child-eating monster that’s been surfacing every 27 years — once and for all.
Lieberher possesses the authority to lead The Losers, despite Bill’s stutter. Lillis more than holds her own among the boys — I’m convinced she’s really Amy Adams, digitally shrunken the way Chris Evans was in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And, in addition to having the best name in all of show business, Finn Wolfhard steals most every scene he’s in as the abrasive Richie. If it wouldn’t land me on some sort of watch list, I would hang out with that kid.
Much like in “Stand By Me,” there’s some wickedly funny humor that only boys full of false bravado can provide. And, just like in “Stranger Things,” there’s a genuine joy in seeing a posse of bicycle-riding kids charging in to fight a monster.
“IT” makes for a fun ride. But I still don’t know whether that means it’s a good movie or if I just really like “Stand By Me” and “Stranger Things.”
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.
Running time: 135 minutes
Rating: R; violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Now playing: At multiple locations