It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Burton; 2016)

In 1989 Tim Burton started the modern superhero movie craze with Batman, his interpretation of the long running comic book character.  A few years later he followed up with the sequel Batman Returns, but while he would always have a fondness for unusual, fantastic characters and stories, that was to be the last of Burton’s true superhero stories, even though it’s well known that he also wanted to bring his version of Superman to the big screen.  I mention this because I strongly believe that his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, comes from a desire to bring his own version of the X-Men to your local cineplex since he most likely will never get a chance to direct one of the movies in Fox’s franchise himself.

Jake is a teenager who witnesses the death of his grandfather, a man who told him many outlandish but exciting stories when Jake was a young boy, at the hands of something unworldly, but is then convinced through psychiatric treatment that what he witnessed was just his mind playing tricks on him due to intense stress.  When this same psychiatrist recommends Jake take a trip to a very sparsely populated island off the coast of England, Jake discovers that his grandfather’s stories were real and that he and his grandfather shared a power, or “peculiarity” as the film’s denizens call it.

Does this set up sound familiar?  If so, it means you’ve seen Tim Burton movies before, though it’s certainly original enough that it isn’t a copy of any of his earlier films, merely heavily influenced by quite a few.  Miss Peregrine’s (I am not going to by typing out the full title anymore) does have the quirky, dark yet gleeful style that Tim Burton is known for but he seems a bit more restrained in tone this time around than usual.  Whether this restraint is due to the fact that he’s interpreting a novel (probably not, see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or just due to a directorial decision, I have to say that it works.  This is a story that could easily go off the rails if allowed to indulge in every single strangeness of character and story, and it nearly does that anyway even with Burton’s decision to reign things in, but somehow barely manages to stay on track throughout it’s running length.

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Miss Peregrine’s “don’t go off the rails” face

What it doesn’t manage to do, unfortunately, is develop any of its many characters to any significant degree nor establish why its fantastic rules exist, even though it does do an admirable job of sticking to the rules it sets up especially considering time travel and so many fantastic powers and abilities are involved in the story.  The peculiar children of the title are outcasts from society and could not interact with the regular world even if they wanted to.  I won’t go into the details of how that is so as not to spoil anything, but the details of why they have to live like that is never in any way made even remotely clear.  Since this living situation is absolutely integral to the story, and this integral part of the story is never made any sense of, the story itself becomes a set of dominoes where if you push one over, the whole thing falls apart bit by bit.  I don’t expect nor want absolute realism in a Tim Burton movie, but it’s no better to realize that the only reason the story exists at all is to shore up some, admittedly very fun, action and special effects set pieces as thinking at all about the crux of the story leads to all of it unraveling.

All the acting in Miss Peregrine’s is unfortunately inconsistent.  Every actor here, child and adult alike, has at least a few scenes which magnificently draw you into their performance and elicit powerful emotional responses, but every actor also has a few scenes in which they seem like they are reading lines from a teleprompter and don’t really understand what the words they’re speaking mean.  It’s quite distracting, and baffling as to how such wildly inconsistent performances could have made it to the final cut of a film, yet there they are.

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This picture shows some of the great art direction which is mentioned in the next paragraph.  Spoiler!

The visuals are also very inconsistent, but here I’m quite sure that was a purposeful choice and in this case those choices added to the fun to be had in the movie.  There is a lot of CGI on display in Miss Peregrine’s, but every once in a while, Tim Burton decides to use old-fashioned stop motion animation, and not even in a very polished way, but effects that look like Harryhausen’s old Clash of the Titans and Sinbad films.  It’s not often, and it most certainly calls attention to itself when it’s done, but I found the use of this style nostalgically entertaining more than distracting.  The art direction is also handled very well, and with a wide range of styles from rustic to gothic to suburban to amusement park and many others in between.  Most settings are wonderful to look at and the scenery is quite possibly the best part of movie.

With his plot involving children with powers being trained by an adult woman with powers of her own being hunted down by another adult with similar powers, Tim Burton really gives us his version of and X-Men style superhero film in Miss Peregrine’s.  This version of the story is pretty good, but never reaches great, and can be a whole lot of fun despite a nearly unforgivable number of inconsistencies, and is definitely an original spin on an old tale.  Miss Peregrine’s is a film I recommend, but not wholeheartedly.  If you aren’t a fan of more fantastic concepts and characters in a film, then there won’t be much here for you as the plot really falls apart under any scrutiny whatsoever.  However, if you can have fun just watching concept characters in a madcap story then this is worth at least catching at a matinee

Rating:  6.2 out of 10