Directed by: Andy Muschietti || Produced by: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg, Barbara Muschietti
Screenplay by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman || Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch || Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung || Edited by: Jason Ballantine || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 135 minutes
While I presume I am one of many who have never read (or rather, finished) Stephen King’s eponymous 1986 novel, I am also one of the few who has never seen the original 1990 television mini-series adaptation, starring Tim Curry as the titular antagonist. I thus went into this latest re-adaptation with relatively blank expectations of both the source material and its popular culture zeitgeist; aside from some effective marketing material and passing familiarity with the film’s long production history, including screenplay contributions from True Detective (season one, 2014) director, Cary Fukunaga, I entered the theatre unsure of what to expect.
General audiences and cinephiles are no doubt well acquainted with the film’s monster box office opening and positive reviews, so the hype for this film, including and surpassing its legacy with regards to both King and the previous cinematic adaptation, are real; but is it to be respected, or better yet, deserved?
In my opinion, it is — or, excuse me — It is. While I would’ve loved to see a thoroughbred auteur piece from the great Fukunaga, as It (2017) stands, the film is an effective, well designed, well structured, and highly entertaining coming-of-age story; its high-profile special FX, creepy ambiance, and impressive visual style lend the film’s tone more toward a dark fantasy tale in the vein of Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), or Crimson Peak (2015), rather than a true horror adaptation a la Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) or Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), both based on King’s works. While I agree to a certain extent with criticisms that It relies too much on jarring sound FX or otherwise ineffective sound mixing, the heart of the film (the aforementioned coming-of-age themes spread throughout our likable, well developed child cast) mixed with director Andy Muschietti’s memorable camerawork make this movie a powerful and dramatic piece of cinema.
The most identifiable positive attribute of It is neither Bill Skarsgard’s performance as the titular villain (also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown) nor the
horror dark fantasy sequences, both of which are strong, but the stellar child cast and their combined development. To be blunt, It features some of the best child casting and acting of this decade, with Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, and Sophia Lillis being the standouts. All the kids have fantastic chemistry, however, and their group dynamic and emotional bond are what hold the story together.
The way Muschietti conveys this dynamic is commendable; slow, spinning camera movements, subtle crane shots, and weaving long-takes convey the energy and versatility of youth, while allowing this cast’s smartass banter to play out in full without devolving into mainstream comedy improv. His visual humor is perhaps as effective as his general dramatic cinematography, utilizing overexposure, extreme slow-motion, stylized jump-cuts, and even characters addressing the camera (though not breaking the fourth wall) to convey laughs rather than canned pop culture references. His use of Benjamin Wallfisch’s memorable soundtrack is also strong, most notably in the film’s final scene where all our principle characters seal their blood oath to return for the inevitable sequel (recast as adults, of course). It’s an emotional, affecting mixture of vibrant sounds, colors, and camerawork.
As for It’s more on-the-nose material, at least from a marketing perspective, Skarsgard’s Pennywise and Muschietti’s fantasy sequences are more icing on the cake than main feature, but they’re appetizing, fun side features, to be sure. The former is a charismatic, unsettling portrayal of childhood fears and anxieties, a mixture of dark humor and old-fashioned bully characterization; the latter include impressive digital FX, great set-design, and wonderful costumes for Pennywise’s various incarnations.
Some may take offense at It’s liberal use of loud sound FX that accompany its scare sequences, and I concede they are overused; that being said, I contest the notion that It is mostly or even significantly dependent on “jump-scares,” given how I define jump-scares as startling teases and nothing more, an audiovisual surprise gag that does not threaten a film’s characters and, by extension, the audience. Most all of It’s fantasy sequences, the majority of which contain Skarsgard, are wonderfully staged and pose a direct threat to our cast. I don’t understand how these sequences are defined as jump-scares in that regard, particularly in light of how much buildup is allotted to each one. In other words, I have little patience for dismissing It as another mainstream, jump-scare dependent, James Wan-esque horror derivative.
Most audiences should enjoy It for various reasons, some because of the creepy clown angle, others due to King’s literary inspirations, while others still to Muschietti’s eclectic mix of childhood drama, coming-of-age themes, and dark fantasy elements. I belong in the latter camp, of course, but much of It’s deafening box office success is a function of its broad yet deep appeal across all those factors, from Skarsgard’s enigmatic clown makeup to Finn Wolfhard’s reliable crude jokes. Given how It is to be the cinematic portrayal of the source material’s memorable quote, “If being a kid is about learning how to live, then being a grown-up is about learning how to die…” I’d say this first installment fulfills that initial phrase about as well as a movie could.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though some will find most anything to nitpick in this filmic day and age of over-adapting and re-adapting, It stands strong with one foot in Stephen King’s influential yet inconsistent bibliography, and the other in the gritty, entertaining production values Hollywood is finally re-embracing. Unearth all that to discover a great child cast and plenty of charm to spare, and what’s not to like?
— However… if you’re allergic to loud, clanging noises in your quasi-horror films, many of these scares may not terrify you as a young adult.
? That’s why you couldn’t hurt Bev, because she wasn’t afraid of you, and neither are we, not anymore. Now, you’re the one who is afraid, because you’re gonna starve.
? Anybody else note the Killer of Sheep (1978) reference?