We always knew we'd see Pennywise again. The 2017 horror hit It set up the return of the demonic, puerile and at times absurdly funny clown. And after splitting Stephen King's lengthy novel down the middle, It Chapter 2 focuses on the adult versions of the Losers Club reviving the terror they faced as children.
While It Chapter 2 brings their story to a conclusive and largely satisfying end, it disappointingly walks right into the same trap as many sequels. Bloated with story ideas, characters and, most noticeably, running time -- not to mention excessive CGI -- Chapter 2 is at times harder to hang on to than an escaping balloon.
Starting where we left off, Chapter 2, in theaters now, opens with young Bev (Sophia Lillis) and the mini-Losers in 1988. Bev has a vision of the gang facing Pennywise as grown-ups, which comes true 27 years later as the group must fulfill its pledge to kill the demonic clown once and for all.
Reuniting the now adult Losers proves difficult, all but one having moved away from the tormented town of Derry, Maine. The bespectacled Richie (Bill Hader) now puts his big mouth to use as a successful standup comedian; the now stutter-free Bill (James McAvoy) is a writer who can't seem to deliver good endings; the grown-up Ben (Jay Ryan), who is still quietly in love with Bev, is the least recognizable having hit the gym; and the kind and thoughtful Bev (Jessica Chastain) is, perhaps surprisingly if you haven't read King's novel, a fashion designer.
James Ransone is instantly recognizable as Eddie, now a risk assessor, capturing the same intense, tightly-wound energy as the young hypochondriac played by Jack Grazer. Ransone's dynamic with a scene-stealing Hader, mainly involving Richie riling Eddie up, recreates the lovable chemistry so wonderfully developed by Chapter 1's young cast.
The hard-working orphan Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is the one who holes up in Derry alone and calls the others to arms. Meanwhile, readers of King's novel will anticipate how Stan (Andy Bean), the quietest Loser who was studying for his bar mitzvah in Chapter 1, reacts to the news of Pennywise's return.
After some convincing, the Losers revisit familiar locations in Derry both in the present and through flashbacks: Bev's bathroom, the infamous drain into which Bill's little brother Georgie disappeared, and the abandoned house where the Losers first battled Pennywise. Fantastic young returning cast members, including Lillis and Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, once again bring the impeccably scripted banter to life.
As in Chapter 1, the Losers individually face Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), each dealing with a literal demon from their past. Playing with the power of memory, Chapter 2 takes new tunnels through those individual moments, delving further into what once caused the Losers profound despair.
Bill's regret and guilt for letting Georgie play in a storm alone manifests in an emotional standoff. Bev's relationship with her physically and sexually abusive father twists into even darker territory as we discover more about her mother. Sadly, adult Bev still suffers from an abusive relationship -- the young Bev's sparkle all but faded in the jealous marriage that entraps her.
In the tangle of individual threads, Mike comes off as overly nutty, having spent nearly three decades obsessed with researching Derry's history for clues on how to defeat Pennywise. His findings draw the Losers on a long journey that delves into strange and undeveloped areas involving Pennywise's origins.
Fortunately those thin reveals don't take away from Skarsgård's iconic clown villain, on a par with Heath Ledger's acclaimed transformation into the malevolent Joker in The Dark Knight. Pennywise's piranha-like movements, derpy eyes and drool-sodden mouth form a frightening language that effortlessly translates to other humanoid and monstrous incarnations.
Chapter 2 also sees the return of Bowers (Teach Grant), who escapes a psychiatric ward (and swiftly tears his sleeves off). However, the adult Bowers' threat fizzles, now a less-layered psycho compared with the tormented young bully of the earlier film.
Director Andy Muschietti and the film's writers clearly have a lot of ideas, bringing new, bigger forms of monstrosity and crafting multiple doorways into the past. (You should consider rewatching Chapter 1 before seeing the sequel.) But the result could have done with a Pennywise-sized bite torn out. The grown-up Losers retread old ground, face repetitive jump scares and relearn unapologetically saccharine values of love, friendship and bravery.
While It Chapter 2's childhood sentiments come off less believably through an adult lens, the sequel recaptures the lovable heart and humor of its dark predecessor. A brilliant Hader is largely to thank, keeping this big, bulging beast afloat.
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Originally published Sept. 3.