With the stakes quickly established, Muschietti introduces the motley crew of middle schoolers trying to avoid Georgie’s fate. Several months after his baby brother disappeared, Bill’s family has turned colder while he maintains hope for Georgie’s return. His gang of close-knit friends do their best to go on as normal. Foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) never misses an opportunity to make a crass joke, usually at the expense of high-strung hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) while Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) looks on bemused. A self-described group of nerds and outcasts thanks to tics like Bill’s stutter or markers like Stan’s Jewishness, they naturally move to incorporate others like them. Rotund new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) fits the bill after he’s rescued from sadistic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), as does Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis), ostracized thanks to an unfounded rumor of promiscuity. With the late addition of home-schooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the septet christen themselves the Losers Club and dedicate themselves to investigating and stomping out the presence that’s been terrorizing them throughout the summer.
Befitting of an adaptation of King’s 1100-page tome, It takes its time. At 135 minutes, Muschietti’s film is long for a horror film. A good portion of that extra time is spent with the kids individually, each getting scenes that elucidate who they are, and more importantly, what they’re afraid of. There’s plenty to be afraid of in Derry, especially in the presence of so many adults who are portrayed as unfeeling, casually cruel, or outright malevolent. While it’s admirable that the film is allowed to breathe in its first act, these interludes are mostly a missed opportunity, despite how effective the filmmaking is. Each interlude is an opportunity to delve into each kid’s psyche, as Pennywise is most nourished by a child’s fear. Sometimes, this comes through, but more often, each experience is a conventional realization of an already-known facet.
Without the presence of Skarsgard, these early scenes, and much of the rest of the film, would not be as effective as they are. His Pennywise is subliminally terrifying, like something out of a half-remembered fever dream. Every action, no matter how minute, is calculated to unnerve. Words are elongated at random, pauses are put in where they shouldn’t be, and underneath every utterance is a barely contained slavering hunger, as drool occasionally escapes from Pennywise’s mouth. Skarsgard oscillates between playful and threatening within the same sentence. It’s a big, theatrical performance that makes the viewer lean in even as they know Muschietti’s going to pull a trick that’ll make them shoot back into their seats.
The cast of young teens playing the Losers Club is less consistent than the unmissable presence at the center of It. Lieberher is a reliable actor, having previously played off of actors like Bill Murray and Michael Shannon, and as the unofficial leader, he’s acceptable. Wolfhard and Grazer are the comedic highlights of the group, drawing laughs even at moments when Pennywise is looming over them. Lillis is given the meatiest and most serious role, as her problems are the most urgent even without Pennywise’s interference. Uris, Taylor, and Jacobs draw the short straws, as the film largely forgets about them after their introductions. Stan’s upcoming bar mitzvah, featured in the trailers and eluded to in the film, gets left on the cutting room floor, and Mike joins the group too late in the film to really gel. Ben is given the hardest shove out of the narrative. He has the most chemistry with Bev, especially compared to Bill as the third corner of a low-key love triangle, but it’s never treated seriously that Bev would want to be with him. The most impressive kid acting comes from outside the Losers Club, with Scott’s Georgie reemerging as a rubber-faced Damian-esque devil, followed closely by Hamilton’s bully, a ruthless and cruel individual barely keeping himself from bursting into tears at any given moment.
It is hardly a perfect film, between the aforementioned flubs and a third act that has no choice but to open the door to King’s weird mythology. However, this is a film that works and charms and does what it’s supposed to do. The Losers Club is fun to hang around with, Pennywise is irresistible as a monster, and Muschietti elicits plenty of gasps and jumps. There was the chance for a deeper and more resonant film, as more contemporary terrors like sexual and racial violence are present but elided in favor of safer fears. It is a conventional horror film done quite well, instead of a bold film that breaks out of its genre. B