Bill Skarsgard stars as the creepy clown killer Pennywise in “It.” Contributed by Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Photo: Warner Bros.

‘It’ works because of characters at center of story

A whole generation was scarred for life and saddled with a clown phobia thanks to slumber party screenings of the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” starring Tim Curry as the creepy killer clown Pennywise. In hindsight, the “It” miniseries is more goofy than terrifying, and the jacked-up, R-rated feature film version, directed by Andy Muschietti, hits movie screens just in time for a new generation to develop a healthy fear of murderous men in white face paint.

Despite its dated ’90s quirks, the “It” miniseries is strangely engrossing for its raw and honest depiction of adults demolishing their childhood fears. The childhood that King depicts isn’t one of innocence, but of violence, abuse, brutality and neglect. The new “It” latches onto that theme, predominantly by eschewing the adult portions, and focusing entirely on the kids’ story, which takes place during the summer of 1989.

Muschietti has cast a wonderful group of teens to play the pubescent warriors who face off against Pennywise, including Finn Wolfhard from “Stranger Things,” Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff. The lone girl of the group, Beverly, is played by Sophia Lillis, a plucky combination of Molly Ringwald and Mia Farrow.

Who steps into the oversize shoes of Pennywise, one of Curry’s most indelible roles? Bill Skarsgård, a young Swedish actor, one of the seven Skarsgård sons of Stellan Skarsgård. And he totally nails it. Skarsgård has Pennywise’s line delivery down pat, the combination of cajoling and creepy enhanced with large, glowing eyes boring into your soul. It’s such a great performance that you wish Muschietti had eased up on the CGI and just let Skarsgård do the talking.

That tendency is an indication of the issues at hand in “It.” The scares come fast, furious and digitally enhanced, when they could have been more effective paced out, slowly building with the surreal imagery that follows Pennywise everywhere he goes. Though the story is changed in parts, it is mostly faithful to many of the set pieces of the original miniseries, just with more numbing digital enhancement.

Ultimately, “It” works not because of its supernatural scares (though there are some good jumps), but because of the characters at the center of this tale. An R-rating allows for the kind of potty-mouthed humor endemic to teenage boys, and “It” is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, often more than it’s terrifying, especially thanks to Wolfhard, who plays the loud-mouth Richie, and Grazer as germaphobe neatnik Eddie.

This is a monster that can’t be contained by any rules or logic, and that’s frustrating. Fears and phobias aren’t always tangible, but Pennywise makes it so. If only the film had slowed down a bit to give room to the character most likely to imprint himself on the amygdala of a generation.

MOVIE REVIEW

‘It’

Grade: B

Starring Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgård and Finn Wolfhard. Directed by Andy Muschietti.

Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Bottom line: It has supernatural scares, but could’ve done with less digital enhancement

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