Stephen King adaptations have a spotty track record, and grading on that curve, “It” delivers – a creepy, smartly cast retelling of this ode to deep-seated fears and adolescence, which should scare up plenty of box office for a movie business desperately in need of a post-summer jolt.
With a popular book and memorable 1990 miniseries already to its name (a project that, like many a King thing, began extremely well before fizzling at the end), “It” serves notice early that it isn’t just clowning around. And it gives away little to say that by focusing steadfastly on the youths in this story – as opposed to jumping back and forth in time, as the miniseries did – the movie shrewdly sets up an inevitable (and planned) sequel featuring their older selves pressed into battle.
Battling what exactly has always been “It’s” slightly fuzzy aspect, and that remains true here. Beginning in 1988, the movie takes place in the town of Derry, which is unusually prone to missing persons in general and especially children, snatched away by an ancient evil that, someone eventually figures out, appears to resurface every 27 years. (The time lapse between the aforementioned miniseries and the movie’s opening is an especially nice touch.)
The malevolent spirit takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), who has picked up some CGI-abetted morphing skills since Tim Curry played him. His accessories, however, are still the the stuff of nightmares, from those razor-sharp teeth to the haunting image of bright red balloons.
Among Pennywise’s victims is the little brother of Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened, leading his posse of self-proclaimed losers in investigating a mystery about which the town’s adults – who are about as present as Charlie Brown’s parents, when they aren’t destructive and evil – seem to care not at all.
“Nobody else is going to do anything,” Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the one girl who finds her way into the group, tells them.
Directed by Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), “It” relies a little too heavily on jump-out-at-you thrills, and perhaps unavoidably yields diminishing returns in its second half, which becomes a trifle repetitive. Still, the camaraderie among the kids – as well as the nicely rendered flourishes of growing up, from first crushes to the colorfully juvenile insults – bring enough humor and heart to the horror to carry the movie over its rocky patches.
As King movies go, the tone most closely resembles “Stand By Me” – one of the highlights of that filmography – without coming close to scaling those heights. There’s also an appropriate connection to “Stranger Things,” the Netflix series that played like a King homage, with Finn Wolfhard as the foul-mouthed Richie, who provides the lion’s share of the movie’s comic relief.
“It” in many ways represents the ultimate King construct, a romanticized trip into adolescence and small-town life where kids are the heroes, adults barely exist and bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation. So while the movie isn’t necessarily buoyant, as assembled, it floats just fine.
“It” premieres Sept. 8 in the U.S. It’s rated R.