Sometimes a movie is so good it actually makes other movies look bad. The cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” is absolutely one. After all the moaning and groaning regarding Hollywood’s lack of originality and addiction to franchises and familiar material, this exceptionally entertaining film proves a lack of originality can be overcome with strong execution. Everyone is so quick to blame studios for their inability to develop original stories, but some of the blame has to be shared by filmmakers who can’t find an inspired angle for material they’re adapting.
In 2017 we have two salient examples of how adaptations should and shouldn’t work. Both are based on popular books by Stephen King. One (“It”) manages to take the source material and deliver well-developed characters, establish an unsettling tone, and manage to make familiar tropes feel fresh. The other, “Dark Tower,” took a fantastic world and made it into a slate-gray, monotone, cliché-ridden garbage pile with two well-known actors incapable of carrying its tired tropes across the finish line.
There were so many things that could have gone wrong with “It.” So many choices could have backfired. The idea of the “scary clown” has been done to death. The whole 1980s angle looked like it could be potentially redundant given the fact Netflix’s “Stranger Things” firmly planted a flag in the whole ‘80s horror-genre theme. Hell, the movie even has one of the kids from “Stranger Things” in it. However, director Andy Muschietti delivers a beautifully shot, scary movie that never feels like it’s leaning too much on style or cliché.
For anyone unfamiliar with the modern classic, “It” tells the story of a town plagued by a series of disappearances and deaths. Something lurks in the dark corners and sewers of Derry, Maine, and lowering the life expectancy of every kid in town. Bill (Jaden Liebreher) becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind the evil presence after his brother vanishes and is presumed dead. While other kids are preparing for a summer of fun and frivolity, Bill is plotting out expeditions into Derry’s sewer system to look for his brother and solve the mystery.
Bill’s friends are sympathetic but somewhat weary of sewer expeditions through a river of gray water. Each are soon motivated to act after having creepy visitations from Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a demonic clown who likes to feast on children because, apparently, that’s what super-evil ghostly clowns like to do.
As far as villains go, Pennywise is exceptionally well done. Muschietti leans heavily on the iconography provided by King in the novel. Red balloons, glowing eyes and a toothy smile that would make any kid shiver with fear. He always feels like a terrible presence and Skarsgård plays him with a blend of ferocity and inhuman awkwardness that places him among the best horror antagonists in recent memory. He’s more unsettling than outright terrifying.
But the kids manage to make the movie more than just another scary story brought to screen. Each bring a lot of energy, emotionality and charm to the roles. It is easily the best kids ensemble since “The Goonies.” They’re an extremely believable collection of lovable losers, and each is very believable under very unbelievable circumstances. It’s amazing watching a movie anchored by young actors and never question the reality of the narrative or sacrifice the stakes. It is a great cast of young talent.