The 1950s small-town America of Stephen King's youth provides a deceptively wholesome backdrop for the author's nightmarish 1986 novel "It," about a group of adolescent misfits in Derry, Maine, who band together to fight an evil, shape-shifting clown. But transplant the timeline to the summer of 1989 — the setting of Warner Bros.' slick new adaptation (the first for the big screen) — and you get different nostalgic touchstones.
The dark saga's young heroes now bike past movie theater marquees advertising Tim Burton's "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon 2" as they flee the bullies, monsters, and adults who terrorize them along the dusty backroads of a sunbaked town suffocating under an invisible haze of sickness.
Unfortunately for them, these kids don't have much time to fritter away watching popcorn fantasies in which outsize superheroes save the day. In "It," the kids have to fend for themselves, risking their limbs, lives and, most tragically, the innocence of youth in order to survive.
"Mama" maestro Andy Muschietti directs this visually splendid but thematically toned-down interpretation with finesse, crafting a world rich in detail where menace lurks in every shadow. Working off a densely plotted script credited to Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and previously attached helmer Cary Fukunaga, Muschietti packs in a dazzling array of fun house thrills choreographed within lushly designed sets, blending a painterly hand with haunting VFX to bring the film's supernatural scares to life.
In the interest of streamlined storytelling and, presumably, box office, King's 1,138-page, time-hopping tome has been bisected into two halves. King interwove a tale of children battling a sinister force with the same characters as adults, decades later, returning to face it again. But the film, the first of two intended "chapters" in this retelling, focuses entirely on the child heroes of Derry and their inaugural battle with the supernatural entity that preys on their fears.
R-rated scares, creepy clowns, ghastly nightmarescapes, blood-spouting sinks and entirely human threats abound as "It" fills its 135-minute run time with enough impressive visuals to keep its audience rapt, if not as emotionally invested as the source material deserves.
At least Muschietti begins with a bang, expertly masterminding a nailbiter of an inciting moment: Six-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) follows his prized paper sailboat downstream in a rainstorm as it lures him to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), a razor-toothed boogeyman with a taste for children's fears and the personification of evil, eyes glinting from the sewers.
Georgie's disappearance is just the latest in a string of missing-child cases to hit Derry, not that the town's grown-ups can be bothered to care. Only Georgie's 11-year-old brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), holds out hope for his return, visited by disturbing apparitions of his yellow-rainjacketed brother calling to him with an unsettling promise: "You'll float too."
As school lets out for summer, fate pushes Bill and six other outcasts together, each tormented by external and internal fears and plagued by visions of It: Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an overweight kid who tracks the town's tragic history in his spare time and leads the gang to the revelation that It comes once every 27 years to feed on children; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the wise-cracking bespectacled loudmouth; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), whose bar mitzvah studies are haunted by a ghoulish woman from a painting; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a hypochondriac worrier; Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a home-schooled orphan and self-described outsider; and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the flame-haired tomboy fending off an abusive dad at home who finds strength as a member of this so-called "Losers Club."
The film soars whenever Muschietti spends time cultivating the crackling preteen chemistry between this bunch, from spitting loogies and cliff-jumping in their tighty-whities to trading "Your mom" jokes with the liberated swagger of foul-mouthed kids dropping F-bombs with aplomb. "It" successfully brings the retro-snappy "Stranger Things" vibe to the big screen, in no small part thanks to actual "Stranger Things" star Wolfhard, who helps keep the cast on its "Stand by Me" wavelength while stealing the movie with most of the funniest lines.
But danger is never too far away in "It," whether at the hands of the omnipresent Pennywise, played with manic, frenetic menace by Skarsgard, or in the sadistic form of the local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), whose violent attacks range from beatings to flesh-carving, and grow increasingly brutal.
Skarsgard's Pennywise won't soon erase the memory of Tim Curry's iconic turn from the 1990 TV miniseries, but he does bring a fresh, demented energy to the role. Elsewhere, "It" struggles to modulate the balance of its ensemble cast. Several arguably minute plot points have been altered in this telling, for better and worse; Mike's role as group historian has been passed on to Ben, for example, leaving the former with a less fleshed out background and sense of purpose, while the fact that he seems to be the lone African American kid in town also serves little relevance within the story, which altogether avoids addressing the subtle and overt racism Mike's family endures in the Derry of King's novel.
But other characters are given room to explore greater complexity, particularly Beverly, who is spared the most notorious and explicitly sexual scene from King's novel and, in an astonishing turn by Lillis that brings nuance to Bev's conflicted feelings about impending womanhood, emerges as the film's tragic and bittersweet anchor.
It's unfortunate that, despite an R-rating earned with quick-cutting violence and foul language, "It" walks back on fully exploring the effect of the traumas it exploits for movie thrills, ranging from physical violence to emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of various adults, robbing itself of earned resonance.
This "It" plays more like Stephen King's "Goonies," lacking the nasty bite or gutting emotional weight the story's underlying bog of anguish should have. Without the benefit of the novel's future timeline to keep the buoyant optimism of its characters in check, there's little sense that these Losers will go on to live scarred adult lives, or that their memories of the ugly business witnessed in Derry's sewers may fade from their minds but ring unfinished in their souls for the next 27 years.
One should walk away from "It" feeling the story lingering like a bruise, a bad taste on the tongue. Instead, it floats safely into a snug Hollywood ending, leaving all the deeper processing for the grown-ups to deal with in the sequel.
Rating: R, for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Playing: In general release