Pennywise the Clown is back to terrorize a new generation of audiences in director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s popular horror novel, so read on for our full It review.
On the surface, director Andy Muschietti’s big-screen translation of It has its work cut out for it. Based on King’s 1986 story about a group of outcasts battling an ancient evil in their Maine hometown, first as children then again as adults, It follows in the footsteps of a popular 1990 television miniseries that famously cast Tim Curry as its terrifying villain, Pennywise the Clown.
As if filling those clown-sized shoes wasn’t enough of a challenge, the big-screen version of It also has to find success as a two-part tale, condensing King’s generation-spanning saga into a pair of two-hour features. It’s a strategy that relies on the first installment being successful enough to justify telling the second half of the story, and one that has had mixed success in Hollywood lately.
Despite all of those elements working against it, though, It succeeds — and ranks among the best King adaptations (so far).
With the first chapter of It set during the main characters’ early years, the film is led by a talented cast of young actors. Rising stars Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special, The Book of Henry) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) are joined by lesser-known actors Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs in the story’s group of misfits who lovingly dub themselves “The Losers Club.”
The chemistry between the young actors is impressive, and while it doesn’t match the same coming-of-age authenticity that ran through films like The Goonies or Stand By Me — another adaptation of King’s work — there’s plenty of heart connecting the young characters in It. Where the 1990 miniseries seemed to short-change the young characters’ side of the story in favor of exploring their adventure as adults, Muschietti’s It is in no such hurry, and wisely gives the characters room to grow both individually and as a close-knit, loyal circle of friends.
Lieberher and Lillis are both particularly effective in their roles, and the characters they portray have a sense of depth that makes the terrors they face resonate beyond the typical monster moments and jump scares. It’s clear that Muschietti puts a lot of trust in his young cast, and it pays off in their performances.
Occupying the film’s most iconic role, Hemlock Grove actor Bill Skarsgård manages to both meet the high expectations for the Pennywise role set by Curry and put his own, nightmare-fueling spin on the character.
Where Curry’s version of the clown was often a comical character when it wasn’t dispensing frights, opting to save its most inhuman moments for climactic points in the story, Skarsgård’s Pennywise seems only mildly interested in passing for human. There’s a monstrous, alien tone to the film’s version of Pennywise that feels entirely different from Curry’s interpretation of the character. The villain is almost completely disconnected from humanity, and terrifying in fresh new ways.
This key difference between the two versions of Pennywise is significant, because it effectively minimizes the creepy, coulrophobic terror of Skarsgård’s performance in favor of more traditional, gore-and-fangs creature scares. Whether the frightening elements in this version of It achieve the desired results will likely depend on which sort of scares audience members are more susceptible to these days.
Anyone familiar with Muschietti’s 2013 horror film Mama, which first earned him the attention of Hollywood, will likely find some similarity in tone and visual effects during some of the darker moments in It. Muschietti does his best work in the dark, and the big-screen version of It spends noticeably more time in the shadows than its television counterpart, and revels in nightmarish imagery. Surprisingly, the film also feels comfortable during daytime moments. That’s likely as much a credit to the cast as it is the person behind the camera.
Given the two-part format for It, it’s reasonable to expect that the first film would conclude on an unsatisfying, open-ended note, but Muschietti does an impressive job of making It feel like a self-contained story. Muschietti and the film’s screenwriting team had a difficult balancing act to pull off with this first film, but they manage to leave the door open narratively while giving the audience a sense of closure.
It doesn’t rank among the more surreal or philosophical adaptations of King’s work (a la The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption), but Muschietti brings the source material to the screen in a way that preserves both its heart and its terror. It mines elements of King’s story that the 1990 miniseries glossed over, and benefits from a cast that’s talented and creative enough to bring those aspects of the tale to life.
The first chapter of It is strong enough to stand on its own, but we’re glad that there’s more story to tell.