Sure, everyone wants to see Ronald McDonald’s killer cousin, but it’s the kids that steal this Stephen King adaptation

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In horror movies, the villains are often the stars, and the heroes, such as they are, serve only to be picked off one-by-one by the lead baddie. Freddy Krueger is the star of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, just as Michael Myers heads up the “Halloween” movies and Jason Voorhees is the draw in the “Friday the 13th” series. To think otherwise is foolish.

“It” works in reverse. While the killer clown Pennywise is the center of the film’s marketing campaign, the image on the film’s poster, it’s the kids in this surprisingly robust adaptation of Stephen King’s novel who give “It” its center. Old Pennywise, for as creepy a shadow as he casts, plays second fiddle to this lively, spirited group of children. It’s a case where the film’s draw is also its biggest drawback.

Based on King’s massive 1,100 page 1986 novel (and taking cues from the 1990 TV miniseries), this adaptation of “It” owes a lot to the Netflix smash “Stranger Things,” which in a reflexive way took its cues from “It.” The story also has the feeling of “Stand by Me,” another King property, fixing on a group of adolescent friends having adventures, getting in over their heads and growing up in the boundless New England summertime.

Unfolding in Derry, Maine in pre-Internet 1989, moving the action from the book up about 30 years, “It” takes place in a world where kids ride their bikes everywhere, hang out together until night falls and get up and do it all over again the next day. It can be a harsh place: Bullies don’t just taunt with words, they pull knives and draw blood. Parental figures aren’t much better; every adult in the story is painted as a threat or a lecherous monster. Youth is hard, but adulthood is a much more damning life sentence.

Out of this world emerges “The Losers Club,” a group of outsiders who band together because no other group wants them. The leader is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose brother disappeared a year prior, but most of the scenes are stolen by Richie (“Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard), whose big talk and constant quipping about sexual conquests he’s never had and is too young to have had perfectly captures the sort of locker room talk, if you will, in which young boys frequently engage.

Another standout in the clique is Sophia Lillis’ Beverly, the group’s sole female, whose mere presence in the group causes several of the boys to walk around with heart emojis in their eyes. Lillis does brave, often fierce work, and has a confidence and a presence in her performance that makes her feel like a potential cast breakout.

So here’s this group, hanging out day and night, mixing it up with bullies and fumbling through adolescence together. The gang has a real sense of camaraderie; they feel like a group of real kids and you buy into their world, the same way you buy into the “Stranger Things” group, or the “Stand by Me” kids or the children in “E.T.” (It’s a sense of wonder that J.J. Abrams wanted to tap into but couldn’t quite nail in “Super 8.”) The kids are right in that zone of innocence where they’re young enough to start developing feelings for the opposite sex but don’t yet know what to do about it — there’s a great scene where the boys all stare agape at Beverly while she lies out in the sun in her underwear — and the story is set long enough ago that it has a sense of nostalgia about it. The kids know how the world works but haven’t been exposed to too much, the way it’s tough to avoid with the access the Internet allows today.

Alas, the movie is not called “The Loser’s Club,” it’s called “It,” so there is that small matter of the clown to attend to.

Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) is introduced during the film’s brutally effective opening sequence, where he lures young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) into a sewer drain by befriending him and telling him stories about the circus. The image of the clown in the sewer is the lasting one from the 1990 TV version, playing on enduring childhood fears of the unknown, and Skarsgard has the right creepy menace to his line delivery. His version of Pennywise has a pair of devilish red streaks extending up his face from the corners of his lips, an improvement on the terror factor of the makeup job on the 1990 Pennywise, although Tim Curry could do more with a cold, dead stare than Skarsgard can do with his entire face.

Pennywise is what ultimately brings the group of kids together — he haunts them all in different ways — but from that initial sewer scene on, his on-screen appearances are met with diminishing returns (save for one scene when he emerges from a slide projection and suddenly grows enormous in scale). Director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”), so good in his scenes with the kids (he has the patience to tease out a gag involving a message written on an arm cast and pay it off several scenes later, and gets a lot of mileage out of a running New Kids on the Block joke), is less effective with Pennywise, and ends up filming him charging toward the camera, maniacally shaking his head, in sequence after sequence. The script, meanwhile, has difficulty making sense of the mythology of Pennywise: he’s real, he’s not real, he’s a manifestation of fear but sometimes he’s made whole in the real world and other times, he’s not? From scene to scene, it’s tough to know what’s going on with this bozo, and it hurts the movie.

But then, of course, there are the kids. After one scene of nightmare gore that owes a lot to Johnny Depp’s kill in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” — “It” for sure earns its R-rating — the group is forced to scrub down a bathroom and wash it free of blood. It’s a grisly scene but it’s set to the poppy bounce of the Cure’s “Six Different Ways,” a smart cue that lets you know the filmmakers know and respect the time and the era in which they’re working. It makes the film come alive, and like the best parts of “It,” it has nothing to do with that silly clown.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahmorama

‘It’

GRADE: B

Rated R: for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language

Running time: 135 minutes

It (R)

A killer clown terrorizes a group of New England kids, but it’s the kids who steal the show in this robust adaptation of the Stephen King novel. (135 minutes) GRADE: B

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