‘It’ sequel buckles under weight of predecessor

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

There is one particular scene which is unfortunately emblematic of “It Chapter Two.” After remembering some of his childhood traumas associated with his hometown, James McAvoy grabs a child by the shoulders, shaking him, and screams that the kid and his family need to leave Derry, Maine immediately. The moment — occurring roughly an hour or more into the film’s runtime — carries such earnest intensity and seriousness that it becomes unintentionally funny. Like this scene, the film as a whole feels forceful and often contrived.

For those unfamiliar with the popular culture phenomenon, director Andy Muschietti’s “It” franchise is the latest incarnation of the classic 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name about a group of misfit kids whose town and lives are haunted by Pennywise, a supernatural clown who eats children and feasts on their fears.

Like the novel, the latest film adaptations feature two timelines. The first occurs during the childhoods of the self-monikered “Losers” in Derry, Maine, as portrayed in the charming 2017 film “It” — a movie so joyously enthralling and thrilling that it puts many other horror movies to shame.

Some 27 years later, the grown-up Losers return to Derry to once again confront the monstrous Pennywise. With the exception of the occasional flashback, “It Chapter Two” follows this adult timeline.

Penned and directed respectively by series mainstays Gary Dauberman and Andy Muschietti, the latest sequel recasts the juvenile Losers with their adult counterparts, led by Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live,” “Barry”) and the aforementioned James McAvoy (“Split,” “X-Men”). Relative unknowns Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan and James Ransone round out the gang.

Where one might imagine that inserting premier adult talent into the fold would presumably elevate the material, some ethereal quality is lost in the transition. The exuberant chemistry that once characterized “The Losers Club” is lost, suddenly replaced by a clunky awkwardness most akin to the atmosphere at a high school reunion. Seeing its own fatal flaw, the movie attempts to gloss over it. Their initial meetup cuts abruptly from greetings to laughter. Conveniently, the Losers must split-up and confront their pasts individually before collectively challenging Pennywise.

Here, “It Chapter Two” begins to seriously lag. The entire second hour (of a nearly three-hour movie) features each character traipsing down memory lane independently from their fellow Losers. During each of their journeys, the characters are subjected to hallucinogenic, psychological attacks, specifically tailored to each of their childhood traumas. At first, these scenes are actually affecting and frightening. But since they are staged sequentially rather than simultaneously cutting between scenes, the act of repetition becomes a slog that completely upends suspension of disbelief.

However, “It Chapter Two” is not a bad movie. Rather, it is often scary, occasionally funny — thanks to Bill Hader — and sufficiently entertaining. The acting talent maximizes the material, as is especially apparent with Bill Skarsgård (“Deadpool 2”) as Pennywise. Moreover, the film’s handling of trauma is quite pointed and thoughtful. So why express such scorn?

The truth is that “It Chapter Two” is like shooting par in golf. A par gets the job done, but will rarely turn any heads. When compared to an eagle or a birdie, it becomes painfully clear that the golfer could have done better. In this analogy, 2017’s “It” is that very eagle to which this sequel is being compared.

“It Chapter Two” lacks the vibrancy, liveliness and chemistry of its predecessor. Rather than riding through this clown-infused horror story on the back of the Losers’ bike pegs, viewers are forced into a parade of traumatic hallucinations without even a hint of subtlety. Everything is so forthright and out-in-the-open that it feels inorganic and contrived, as in the previously described altercation between James McAvoy and the child. The intensity of McAvoy’s face carries a “you haven’t seen what I’ve seen” look. Standing as a surrogate to the audience, the young boy can only silently wish that this adult man would stop grabbing him by the shoulders and screaming about his trauma.