Written By: Daniel Kinsley
With the benefit of hindsight, pulling this off was always going to be a lot to ask. When IT (2017) debuted to massive box office and critical raves, it immediately took its rightful place among the top-tier of Stephen King adaptations and brought a whole new wave of devotees to Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In our original review of the first film this writer made a point of emphasizing the personal significance of King’s work, and in particular the saga of the Losers Club. As a dedicated Constant Reader, King’s opus ranks among this writer’s top five favorite novels, ever. While the ’17 film was not without its flaws, it was an enormously affecting piece of filmmaking and a faithful (if not slavishly so) adaptation that captured much of the emotional backbone of the story. All of which is a preface to say there is no one that wanted to see IT: Chapter Two (2019) succeed more than this writer. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, there is just enough about this sequel that works to make its ultimate failure feel that much more frustrating.
Picking up 27 years after the events of the original film, the Losers are all grown up, and nearly all of them have moved on from their anguished hometown of Derry, Maine. All except for Mike Hanlon (Isiah Mustafa) who has stayed behind and dedicated his life to discovering how to defeat Pennywise, once and for all. The film kicks off with a grisly sequence (reminiscent of Georgie’s demise in the first film) involving a homophobic attack on Adrian Mellon (filmmaker Xavier Dolan) which begins in an ugly, but recognizably human way before things escalate and Adrian becomes the latest victim of a recently returned Pennywise. The Losers are reintroduced one by one as Mike reaches out to remind each of them of the oath they made as children to return if It ever came back. This intrusion of the past is all the more unwelcome because they remember so little of who they once were. The further you get from Derry, the less you remember.
While some have derided the adult casting as being too on-the-nose, it mostly works like gangbusters. All of the adult cast-members do have at least a passing (if not an outright uncanny) resemblance to their childhood counter-parts, but to dismiss them as simple fan-casting would be to ignore the fact that this is a very talented bunch on the whole. During the initial meeting of the adult Losers, the ensemble is at its best, instantly creating a familiar chemistry as they navigate from laughter and reminiscence to trepidation and outright terror as they begin to remember more of what brought them back together. Bill Hader and James Ransome as Richie and Eddie (respectively) establish themselves in these early scenes as the MVP(s) and it is their relationship that provides many of the most satisfying emotional beats in the film. Hader may have been an obvious choice to play a grown up Finn Wolfhard, but it does not make him any less excellent. Likewise, Ransome perfectly captures the twitchy, overly-cautious spirit of Eddie (grown up to be a risk assessment consultant for an insurance company). Almost as soon as the cast is brought together, however, they are separated (again, and again) to the detriment of both the film and the effectiveness of the performances.
Ironically, many of the factors that made the first film so effective are the same qualities that hamstring Chapter Two. While watching any adaptation, it is usually a more fun experience to take the film at face value and judge its success on its own merits. For this writer, that was a considerably easier task with the first film. In the novel, much of the adult sections are a framing device for exploring the childhood aspects of the story, only returning fully to the adult portion for the final showdown. By cleaving the book neatly in half, adapting the gargantuan novel becomes much easier, but by necessity creates a void in the center of the story. Writer Gary Dauberman elects to try and have it both ways, however, with a good portion of the second act dealing with the Losers tracking down a personal “artifact” from their youth which will be weaponized in a ritual aimed at defeating Pennywise. It is largely cumbersome material that feels shoehorned in as a way of revisiting the childhood actors via flashback.* Unfortunately, these flashbacks are mostly made up of material that feels like recycled (and less effective) versions of their personally tinged encounters with Pennywise from the first film.
Save for Hader, nearly every member of the ensemble cast suffers from their lack of shared screen-time. One of this writer’s more significant criticisms about the first film was the sidelining of Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and here Mike is certainly given more to do, however, he still feels too thinly drawn. Mustafa gives a fine performance, leaning into the manic aspects of the only Loser to remember everything all these years later, but he is also saddled with too much exposition that feels borrowed from another, less interesting film. Jessica Chastain may have been an obvious choice to play a grown-up Beverly, and she is a tremendous actress but is given too little to do aside from moon over a barely-remembered romance. The lack of exploration of the dynamics between Bev and Bill (James McAvoy)/Ben (Jay Ryan) feels like a missed opportunity, considering how rich the source material is. Jay Ryan is serviceable as the grown and sexy version of Ben, but also is not given much to do. It is too bad because the cast is clearly game, but it feels as though the attempts at characterization lean too heavily on the first film. Henry Bowers (played as an adult by Teach Grant) is given a role in the proceedings that feels hurried and obligatory, and mostly seems like it could have just as easily been excised. It may sound strange to say that a nearly three-hour film feels too short, but the film is littered with moments that feel unfinished, or under-explored. The result is a strange sense of pacing (that in fairness has plagued other major blockbusters) which feels simultaneously overstuffed and too sluggish. It makes for a frustrating experience because the film is faithful enough to the source material to hit the major beats (though too many of them feel rushed) but much of the invented material feels like bloat, or simple wheel-spinning. There are some strange tonal choices as well, including one eyebrow raising needle drop that completely tore this viewer out of the moment, and a King cameo that feels like a Stan Lee-Marvel wink that is fun in the moment, but might be a bit too meta for the narrative.
Derry itself is such a major part of the story, and the original film did a terrific job at creating atmosphere and the constant sense of dread, both in the way the town looked and felt, and in the way many of the adults (or other children) interacted with the Losers. Thematically, IT is a story about trauma, and the cyclical nature of horror, as it is passed down through generations, and Pennywise is ultimately a big old metaphor for these things. If the first film captured the horrors of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, Chapter Two aspires to double down on exploring the way trauma informs who we become later in life. Unfortunately, Derry does not feel nearly as well-drawn this time around, and the effectiveness of the story loses something essential without the mixture of the cosmic and the banal. This also serves to make Pennywise less effective as he becomes less of a way to project very real terrors than a CG shape-shifter. Many of the Losers have not escaped their childhood traumas (in the same way they have been unable to escape Pennywise). Twitchy, hypochondriac Eddie married a woman as large and overbearing (both in a literal, and emotional sense) as his horrifying mother, while Beverly married a man who abuses her physically, echoing the abuse of her father when she was young. While the film pays lip-service to these ideas, they are largely cast aside in favor of creating more fun-house scares. Richie is given the closest thing to a full emotional arc, as the film largely hints at his sexuality, and it is a shame that it ultimately feels under-cooked, because Hader sells the hell out of it.
Structurally, Pennywise was not going to be as prominent of a role in the second half of the story. Much of the adult material acts as a springboard to get the gang to their final confrontation, and frankly, it is more difficult to justify the sorts of scares from the first film being perpetrated against adults. So, too much Pennywise might dilute his effectiveness, but here it feels like there is not nearly enough of him. Considering how bizarre and committed Skarsgård has been in the role, it is disappointing to see him given almost as little to play on as the rest of the cast. As with many of the subplots which are pared down, it seems like a missed opportunity to explore the weightier material instead of relying on spook-house set pieces that quickly grow tiresome. By the time the final battle rolls around, centered around The Ritual of Chüd, it has become rote and predictable. The ending of the novel (and the explanation for It‘s origins) is full stop cosmic batshit and there was no way any film was ever going to go there (not least of all because it’s border-line unfilmable). While the film does allow some of the gonzo aspects to bleed through, too much of the battle echoes the same beats from the ending of the first film, before climaxing with a truly bizarre choice that retroactively defangs much of what made Pennywise feel threatening or scary at all.
Where the ending of the first film ends on an emotional high note, here, the emotional beats feel recycled and mostly unearned. For this viewer, at least, it was difficult to watch the film and not think about director Andy Muschetti reporting a much-longer cut which would combine both films into one experience, which feels like a way to merge the big ambitions with the emotional beats that do not quite land. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about it is that it is by no means a bad film; aside from the pitch-perfect casting, Muschetti continues to have an eye for the grotesque, and has ambition to spare. Taken as a whole, however, it all ends up as a piece that is less than the sum of its parts. There is an ongoing gag throughout the film about how Bill (who grew up to be a writer) cannot write a good ending; it’s an effective joke because this is a criticism often lobbed at King (and certainly at the divisive ending of the novel on which this film is based) however by the end of the film it is also more of a bitter joke, as it feels like Bill was not the only one who had trouble coming up with an ending. When one of the Losers utters “Be brave, be true, stand” (a phrase that is literally tattooed on this writer’s right arm) it should have felt like catharsis, but mostly it felt like the rest of the film; a big swing that mostly misses the mark.
* This also results in mildly distracting digital de-aging technology being utilized because teenagers grow a ton in two years.