As if the 135-minutes of toothy clown slaughter in 2017's It wasn't enough, It: Chapter Two, out Friday, tacks an additional 169-minutes onto the epic horror saga based on Stephen King's wrist-spraining 1985 novel of the same name. Much ado has been made about the sequel's nearly three-hour run time, which some critics have blasted as having about as much bloat as its 1,100-page source material: "A game of musical chairs that runs too long," skewered The Washington Post. "Bigger, but not better," deemed Vanity Fair. The Associated Press probably gets the closest to the truth, calling It: Chapter Two "sheer much-ness."
There is indeed nothing minimal about Argentine director Andy Muschietti's long-planned second half to the It cinematic epic, with Chapter Two taking place 27 years after the events of the first film. While King's novel had interwoven the stories of the Losers' Club — who return to Derry as adults to put to rest the evil they had banished but failed to end in their youth — Muschietti's two-part adaptation smartly divides the story into a clean before and after. It is far from a perfect book, but still manages to be a whole lot of fun. Likewise, It: Chapter Two succeeds even more than its 2017 predecessor in embodying that messy "much-ness" of King's novel, in a way that both serves to delight old fans and bring new ones further into the fold.
In many respects, 2017's It was a rather conventional horror movie, borrowing the mythology of King's Derryverse and applying a simple structure of jump scares, comic relief, and the eventual climactic showdown against the big bad. There's nothing inherently wrong with that — Netflix's Haunting of Hill House did much the same when it borrowed, and then wildly deviated from, Shirley Jackson's far-more-compelling novella — and it is obviously a winning formula, seeing as It was a box-office success. Still, I'd worried about the sequel: The first film was so basic a coming-of-age metaphor that there seemed little room for the adults' stories set to follow. Of course, Muschietti's approach to Chapter Two should have been obvious: The Losers return to grapple with their (literal) childhood demons. Turns out that in Derry, you can go home again.
The biggest star of Chapter Two never appears on screen: Casting director Rich Delia is the one who deserves massive credit for assembling the ensemble cast of the year. Seeing as the child-actors in the first portion of It were what gave the story its earnest heart, it was a tall order to find adults that matched their silver-screen-sized personalities. Delia delivered: Jessica Chastain loans a delicate vulnerability to her performance as the grown-up Beverly Marsh; James Ransone nails the humorous wide-eyed mannerisms of Jack Dylan Grazer's young Eddie Kaspbrak; Bill Hader makes a terrific adult Richie Tozier, who still hides his fear behind his hilarious sense of humor; Isaiah Mustafa is one conspiracy board away from being a meme as the library-dwelling Mike Hanlon; and James McAvoy plays Bill Denbrough, who never lost the worry lines around his eyes after the death of his younger brother, Georgie. Meanwhile, fat Ben Hanscom glowed up to be a knock-off Robert Downey Jr., played by Jay Ryan (he owns a yacht now! And a giant dog!). Even Teach Grant (whom you might recognize from this season of The Terror) is perfectly cast here as an adult Henry Bowers, King's character who is most criminally underused in the films.
While all those actors jostling for screen time might make the movie "overstuffed," as detractors will put it, Chapter Two actually does an impressive job juggling the dynamics. An early scene at a Chinese restaurant, where the Losers' Club reunites (well, all minus Stanley Uris, who doesn't make the "cut"), is a perfect instance of how the actors' cumulative chemistry crackles on screen. Later, when the team splits up, Scooby-Doo-style, to retrieve "tokens" to be used in a ritual to kill Pennywise the Clown (the ever-brilliant Bill Skarsgård), the individual actors are allowed the space and time to fill in their roles. While this "lone quest" chapter of the film could have tipped into being repetitive, it serves instead to give each Loser the breathing room so that the climax — involving a rather literal discarding of baggage — has the right amount of emotional torque.
If not for the logical symmetry of parts one and two, It almost would have been better served as three movies or a miniseries. Instead, Muschietti sprinkles in enough Easter eggs that King's fans aren't left dissatisfied with his cuts. Derry's tragic history, for example, is alluded to in ways like a quick shot of a mural depicting the Bradley Gang massacre, a side-plot that is otherwise excluded from the movies. Turtle imagery is also everywhere, although Chapter Two's climax does away with King's version of the Ritual of Chüd, which involves the Losers biting It's mental tongue (no one ever said it wasn't an extremely weird book). Some other bits are just in good fun: cameos by director Peter Bogdanovich and Stephen King; a random "here's Johnny!"; a blood-drenched nod to Carrie.
Still, there are certain tendencies of King's that Chapter Two would have done well to avoid. Thankfully, King's infamous child orgy sewer scene was one such plot line that never made it to screen, but the author's appropriative tic of somehow always inserting indigenous mythology into his stories was not likewise axed. A running joke about Ben Denbrough being bad at writing endings — a meta-commentary on King facing such a criticism himself — was a bold gamble by the screenwriters that didn't pay off, particularly seeing as Chapter Two's conclusion is such a corny mess (think: kids riding bikes in slow motion, looking at each other and laughing). Denbrough is also seen scribing a passage straight out of King's It on his laptop, which got a massive eye-roll in the theater from me. On the other hand, nauseatingly, the brutal homophobic attack that opens the movie translates just as well to Chapter Two's setting of 2016 as it did when King had it set in 1984.
Perhaps It: Chapter Two's biggest saving grace is that it is self-aware. Muschietti and his team are clearly fans of their source material, and they treat the story with a generous humor that even King, in all his self-seriousness, didn't loan to the book (a gag with a Pomeranian had me howling). Yes, It: Chapter Two certainly has too much going on. And yes, despite that, it is also somehow not enough — there is never enough space to give Henry the background he deserves, for example, or to explore the origin of evil story at the heart of the novel. But with ticket prices soaring, I for one wouldn't mind getting the biggest bang for my buck by spending three whole hours in Derry with the Losers.