Sequel picks up 27 years after the original, and sometimes feels just as long

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Super-sized doesn’t mean super scary in “It Chapter Two,” a faithful but often plodding sequel to the 2017 smash that finishes off the story of the Losers Club and the evil clown that terrorizes them.

Director Andy Muschietti crafts a handsome looking film that spends too much of its arduous, nearly three-hour running time hammering home themes that are apparent to the viewer. Yes, the scars of childhood inform who we become, and no matter how far we run from them, they continue to affect us until we face them head on. Now can we arrive there a little more quickly, please?

“It Chapter Two” unfolds 27 years after the actions of the first film, and the Loser’s Club is all grown up and has left Derry, Maine far in the rearview. Most are doing pretty well for themselves — Richie (Bill Hader) is now a successful stand-up comic, Bill (James McAvoy) is a Hollywood screenwriter, and Beverly has grown into, well, Jessica Chastain — but they’re uniformly sick to their stomachs when they get a phone call from their old pal Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) telling them they need to return to Derry.

Mike is the only one who has stayed behind in his hometown, and he has spent his days studying the patterns of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who is back to killing again after nearly 30 years spent dwelling in the sewers.

Reluctantly, the gang returns, each member having buried their childhoods and memories of Pennywise in the deep recesses of their memory. (And judging by their lack of familiarity with one another, none of them bothered friending each other on Facebook over the years, either.)

In his research, Mike discovered the way to beat Pennywise involves an ancient ritual, requiring each of the Losers to collect a meaningful artifact from their childhood to offer up as a sacrifice to the demon clown. Which means revisiting ugly childhood memories in Derry, where adult figures are grotesque manifestations of Americana at its worst.

“It Chapter Two,” like its predecessor, lights up when the evil Pennywise is on screen, and Skarsgård’s twisted performance — especially the way he lets drool spill over his bottom lip as he stares through his soon-to-be victims and taunts them in his playfully evil clown voice — highlights the film. He’s “It’s” reason for being, the same way Freddy Krueger was the star attraction of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. ("It" references "Elm Street" with several visual homages.) 

But unlike Freddy, Pennywise is protected; Muschietti keeps him off screen and hidden in the shadows, using him only when needed. It’s the film’s gift as well as its curse: Pennywise makes his time on screen count, his every laugh more sinister than the one that came before it, and he always leaves you wanting more.

And there’s a lot more in “It Chapter Two,” mostly with the grown-up Loser’s Club gang, who often act in tandem with their younger counterparts. Muschietti sends them each on solo spiritual missions, and in so doing, overestimates the value of their individual stories; a lot of time could be saved pairing up the lesser Losers — James Ransone’s Eddie, Jay Ryan’s Ben — rather than letting their stories unfurl, one at a time, at such an agonizing pace. “Avengers: Endgame” did more with more characters more efficiently, and clocked in at only a few minutes longer than “It Chapter Two.”

There are a lot of jokes in the film about stories with unsatisfying endings — author Stephen King even shows up in a cameo role to make a few of his own — perhaps attempting to soften the blow of “It’s” protracted letdown of a finale.

But acknowledging it only illuminates the issues that plague “Chapter Two” as well as its predecessor: Pennywise is a metaphor, a stand-in for childhood fears and anxieties, and a physical showdown with a symbolic being has its limitations. The way Muschietti dances around the realities of Pennywise hinder it further. Are we to take him literally? And if so, why doesn’t the movie? “It” never decides which fears to take at face value and which exist only in the subconscious, and winds up confused as a result.  

“Chapter Two” eventually settles on its version of a happy ending, finishing King's vision for his characters. But Skarsgård’s Pennywise still has life in him beyond the source material. "It Chapter Two" closes the book on the Losers, but hopefully for Pennywise, it's only the beginning.   

'It Chapter Two'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material

Running time: 170 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama 

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