As sequels go, a second It doesn’t seem particularly gratuitous. After all, the 2017 movie left literal chapters of Stephen King’s sprawling 1986 novel on the table. Even with the nearly three-hour running time of It Chapter Two, the total adaptation comes in at an efficient three pages per minute. (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, by contrast, takes almost two minutes a page.)
The novel follows two timelines: seven kids in Maine circa 1958 confronting a supernatural horror, and the same characters as adults in 1985, returning to battle It once and for all. Andy Muschietti’s first film focused on the kids’ story, bumped up in time to the ’80s. Now, the director is back to explore the second half of the timeline, set in the present day.
The true reason for the existence of It Chapter Two, of course, is not so much that the story was left unfinished — the first movie was simply titled It, and structured to be self-contained — as that the previous film was a, so to speak, monster hit. It became the tentpole of the recent frightfilm renaissance, the highest-grossing horror movie of all time and the crowning glory of the scary clown meme.
Part of the first film’s appeal was that it played like a revisited Stand By Me. That movie, released the same year It was published, may remain the landmark King adaptation despite having no supernatural elements. Its macabre material served to highlight just how fraught its young heroes’ lives already were: their journey to visit the body of a dead peer revealed that mortal considerations were already woven into the fabric of their sometimes brutal lives, despite the kids’ endearingly chipper goofing around.
It hit all those bases, the movie’s repeat-watch value coming from the affable chemistry among a young cast including Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things. The flashback scenes featuring those actors are by far the most engaging in Chapter Two, with Wolfhard digitally restored (yes, really) to his tween self.
The adults are fine, but they’re…well, adults. The new actors include Bill Hader as an adult Wolfhard, and Jessica Chastain as the 40-something version of the Losers Club’s sole female member, played by Sophia Lillis as a girl. The grownup cast recapture some of their younger peers’ chemistry during a reunion dinner scene, albeit one set uncomfortably at a Chinese restaurant. (Granted, the whole town is haunted, and granted, the images are arresting, but it’s unfortunate that a server delivering possessed fortune cookies is the most prominent Asian character in either movie.)
Before a preview screening we were urged to avoid dropping spoilers, but aside from a couple of fun cameos, what is there to spoil, really? Needless to say Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård) is back, with all his malevolent shape-shifting capabilities. When it comes time to defeat him, the Losers will need to bond together…and there will be a cost, but you knew that from the book.
The new movie is well-crafted, with some distinctive tableaux, and it more or less follows the same formula as the first. So why is It Chapter Two such a slog for such extended stretches? The fundamental problem isn’t that the characters are too adult: it’s that Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman don’t make them adult enough to sustain their own movie.
We get glimpses of the characters’ lives (troubled, natch) before returning to the iconic town of Derry, but essentially they’re dealing with the same issues they faced as kids: lingering guilt, shame, and fear born of parental abuse, bullying, racism, and health struggles. Like Stand By Me, the first It film drew us in by painting the ostensible villain as the manifestation of the kids’ real-world fears, an indigenous force rather than an alien invader.
(As such, it takes an indigenous force to defeat It, we learn in additional problematic scenes that treat Native cultures as resources to be exploited for combat against killer clowns.)
The adult storyline in the book functioned as part of the same narrative, and King had a thousand-plus pages to flesh it out. Logically, adult characters in the new movie should be given new adult concerns that develop their childhood terrors; instead, they’re still fighting the same battles. It still lives in the same haunted house, and even the pervy druggist (Joe Bostick) is the same. To cite another ’80s touchstone, even Back to the Future dug deeper.
No one, though, gets shorter shrift than the characters Chapter Two should care about most: the new generation of kids targeted by Pennywise. Bill (James McAvoy) is still haunted by having allowed his little brother to wander off and meet the clown in a sewer drain, but the new film can hardly spare a scene for a little girl who’s attacked by Pennywise in its most genuinely haunting interlude, aptly set under the bleachers at a ballgame.
To get down with the clown, it seems, her family will just have to wait for chapter three.