Contrary to the fine work of the Trailer Cutting Department at Warner Bros., It is not a scary movie. What It is, is a young-teens-on-bikes small-town-USA ‘80s-set adventure yarn, like Netflix’s Stranger Things, with which It shares much in common. Stranger Things, as an intellectual exercise, imagines a Stephen King-like story as directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on a Stephen King novel and is directed in the style of Steven Spielberg. Stranger Things is also better.

This is seriously against It’s interests, because Stranger Things got to us first, while It languished in extended Development Hell, and now – the true irony – It feels like a rip-off of Stranger Things! Oh well – Stranger Things have happened.

So is It worth seeing? Perhaps if you’re a young teen, like the protagonists of the story, it will give you a rollicking couple of hours. And if you’re an adult, it may scratch that god-darn Goonies itch, or even a Gremlins gremlin. But it’s unfortunately been so late in coming, it feels redundant and sub-par. It’s not as engaging as Stand By Me, ET, the aforementioned Stranger Things, or even Super 8 (2011), the film It is perhaps the closest kissing cousin to. That film was J.J. Abrams’ obvious homage to Spielberg; here, from young Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama), it’s less homage, more pure obvious influence. Abrams was lovingly aping a style; as far as we know, this is Muschietti’s style. Every frame of the film aches to remind you of another, much better, one.

King’s books and stories – there are a lot of them – have their ups and downs; there are classics and there are lesser works. As a general rule, though, he writes brilliantly effective scenes rather than perfectly constructed entire narratives, and It suffers from this aspect of his craft. It’s got a boatload of creepy moments and this filmed version, being quite faithful, is incredibly episodic, coming off as a series of set-pieces that hang together very loosely. “It” is a demon that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, every twenty-seven years. At its best – that is, its most memorable for readers and viewers – “It” appears as Pennywise, a creepy clown. But this film, embracing CGI in a way that the TV mini-series of 1990 could not, wastes its trump card. We barely get any Pennywise as, well, Pennywise, but instead an awful lot of Pennywise-as-special effect, “shapeshifting”, being churned through the digital funhouse mirror. And, well… obvious digital effects just aren’t scary.

Like Stranger Things, the best performance and most interesting character is the lone girl in the gang of guys. Here it’s Beverly, played very, very effectively by Sophia Lillis, who has only been acting a couple of years but carries the movie. She is almost spookily evocative of a young teen Amy Adams, which may be very deliberate, as the final credits for the film reveal that this is It, Chapter One, and we have another movie, with the kids all grown up, to come. Whether they can convince Adams to be in that movie by flattering her with the casting of this young doppelgänger is doubtful in the extreme, but Lillis is excellent on her own merits.

One note for the pervs: the infamous scene from the novel depicting the shenanigans the gang gets up to as their final youthful act together has, for every possible reason, not been filmed and distributed here. For that, we’ll have to wait for Larry Clark’s take, which would have been far more interesting, I have little doubt, than this lacklustre romp.




*** (out of five)

Spectacular – indeed, from the two leads, virtuosic – performances, assured production design, an intriguing true story and an undeniably fun milieu only just manage to win a tug-of-war with a formulaic script, pedestrian direction and a shamefully obvious score in Monsieur Chocolat (which was simply called Chocolat in its native France). It’s a super-mainstream crowd-pleaser that glitters amiably like a shallow lake in the sun.

Omar Sy (a global star since The Intouchables, 2011) plays Rafael Padilla, a former Cuban slave performing as a scary “cannibal” in a provincial circus in France in the early 1900s. When the circus’ clown Footit (James Thierrée) faces the axe for an act considered old-hat, the two join forces to create a new act, to great acclaim and success in Belle Époque Paris. But Padilla is plagued by demons, including gambling and pride (more on that in a second) and his behaviour seriously jeopardises his success.

Thierrée – grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill – is an established, trained and highly skilled Clown, and it is not surprising to see him perform extraordinary physical comedy of the period. The wonderful surprise is seeing Sy, a physically massive man, match him elegantly in the film’s many, many clowning scenes, which appear to have been filmed without any trickery (such as CGI or doubling). Who knew? I don’t know whether Sy has a background in clowning or whether he learned everything for the part, but he is absolutely believable (helped by the reality of the situation, which was that Footit was the established clown who taught Padilla – “Monsieur Chocolat” – the art of clowning).

The evocation of the period – especially of the two circuses we inhabit – is lovely, but the script is simplistic and blunt: you see what’s coming every step of the way. There is very little context given for the more general treatment of black people in France at the time, and, troublingly, the message of the film – perhaps unavoidably, given the source material – seems to be that the secret to success is to shut up and stay in your box. Padilla’s downfall is driven by a growing sense of dignity and pride in his blackness. By demanding to be taken seriously, he loses everything. For an aspirational movie about a somewhat forgotten black pioneer, that’s pretty disheartening.

The actual Padilla and Footit.

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