Pennywise returns, and Derry’s Big Losers are back to stop him

Following the enormous financial and artistic success of He (2017), returning director Andy Muschietti had a real monster to contend with: how to outdo the first film and shape what was to be the horror genre equivalent of The Godfather: Part II. To the credit of the filmmakers and actors, this ambitious sequel comes halfway to classic status, but it’s pretty satisfying and good enough overall.

Twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, the Losers’ Club has now grown and united to once again face off against an evil entity in Derry, Maine. Taking the form of a circus clown named Pennywise (played again by formidable Bill Skarsgard), the evil “It” has dozens of red balloons in his arsenal and eats children. Unless the Losers’ Club can fully remember their past and work together, this cycle of carnage will never end. To say the least, if you haven’t seen the first movie, you’ll be lost.

The story goes back and forth between what survivors slowly remember from their childhood and how their current selves have to fight a supernatural being. If there are too many CGI giant monsters, at least they’re well done and aim to evoke a Del Toro-like richness in their hideousness. We also get flashbacks to classic monster movies and a scene of Native American mysticism, which seems to originate from The doors or Modified states. While Stephen King’s story offers richness in its exploration of how our past defines us, most of that was covered in the previous film.

There are some gay subplots that aren’t handled very well: the brutal opening and a character later reveal to openly deal with the topics of homophobia and stay closed, but those touches, while well-intentioned, get lost in the story too loaded. This sequel unfolds quickly for a long movie but leaves too many plot points hanging in the air. Like Beverly Marsh’s horrible home life, it has a strong introduction but is never treated again. Condensing King’s massive 1,138-page tome was absolutely necessary, but adapting a long job means either keeping the elements of the story or dropping them – not keeping chunks of the good stuff and then forgetting about them a few scenes later.

The adult cast is impressive and well-chosen, especially the ever-excellent Jessica Chastain, who delves deep into Marsh’s alternately tortured and tense past. Bill Hader, playing the role of Richie Tozier, injects lively humor into each of his appearances and easily steals the film.

As solid as the adult actors are, the young performers playing at the Losers’ Club still own the film; the young actors share a well-honed comedic chemistry, rapport, and timing that their adult counterparts lack. It’s weird to admit I was happy to see moments start with Chastain and cut to Sophia Lillis playing the same role but it’s there. Including the original cast and giving them new scenes to play was some of the smartest choices here.

From the start we are reminded that the old Bill, played rather well by James McAvoy, wrote an ending to his book that was unpopular and needs a new conclusion that “doesn’t suck”. It’s an obvious nod to the famous 1990 TV mini-series response to “It,” in which a stop-motion animated creature dampens the overall emotional effect. Here, the final scenes work – if anything, the grand finale plays out as a thrilling adult version of The Goonies. As aggressively creepy and violent as it can be, a sense of fun (EC Comics-style) dabbles on the macabre stuff. Compared to “Stranger Things” and Super 8, or “It” is a preferable revisit to the 80s (and Muschietti once again displays his apparent love for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5).

While the first new version of He is tighter, I admired the way Warner Brothers basically let Muschietti indulge himself and do whatever he wanted for this episode. Truth be told, an even longer version (20 extra minutes, top) would have created more room for dueling subplots to breathe.

Is this really the end? Of course not. If there isn’t a prequel called “Pennywise” in the next five years, someone at Warner Brothers will find a red balloon floating above their desk.

Three and a half stars

Rated R / 169 Min.

Photo courtesy IMDB

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