IT Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Previously adapted into a two-part, four-hour ABC miniseries in 1990, Stephen King’s massive (1,000-plus pages) 1986 novel It gets a significant upgrade in director Andy Muschietti’s new feature-film version. While both King’s book and the previous adaptation switch back and forth between time periods to tell the story of seven friends who combat an ancient evil in their small Maine hometown, the new film focuses solely on the characters as children, in their first confrontation with the creature they simply call “it.” (A planned sequel will pick up with the characters as adults nearly 30 years later, when they must face the monster again.)
The filmmakers move the setting from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, but the nostalgic tone remains, even without the older versions of the characters looking back on their younger selves. Muschietti assembles an impressive young cast to play the preteen misfits dubbed the Losers’ Club, led by Jaeden Lieberher as the sensitive Bill, whose younger brother George is one of the monster’s first victims. Sophia Lillis gives an especially strong performance as Beverly, the lone girl in the group, and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard is lively and entertaining as Richie, whose nonstop jokes hide deep fear.
They’re joined by Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), all of whom encounter terrifying apparitions from their worst nightmares over the course of one long summer. Whatever form the creature takes, it eventually reverts to the demented clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), which makes its home in the town’s sewers. Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is the most memorable part of the 1990 miniseries, and while Skarsgård can’t quite surpass Curry’s work, he makes Pennywise his own, with a manner that’s more delirious than sarcastic.
Skarsgård’s Pennywise is also more explicitly violent, and Muschietti takes full advantage of the R rating to stage intense set pieces, updating many of the horrors faced by the kids in King’s book. This is a slick modern horror movie rather than the more personal story in King’s novel, but it’s extremely effective in its scares, and the performances bring out the kids’ emotions even if the characters aren’t as well-rounded as they are on the page. King fans can (and will) quibble with how certain elements have been tweaked, but Muschietti balances the demands of the story effectively, ending on a satisfactory note while leaving plenty of material for the follow-up. It falls short of being a great movie, but it’s easily the best big-screen King adaptation in a very long time.