GREG'S GRADE: B-

Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened, from a creative standpoint, for "It Chapter Two" was the runaway success of its predecessor, "It," released this same weekend in 2017.

The first film, which adapted about half of Stephen King's decades-spanning, 1,100-page novel, received mostly glowing reviews and grossed $700 million worldwide, becoming the top earning R-rated horror movie of all time by a wide margin. That seems to have given returning director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman free reign for "Chapter Two," which stretches to a bloated running time of nearly three hours and treats the material — treats itself, in effect — with an inordinate amount of reverence for a movie about a scary clown.

"It" the novel, of course, has themes that run deeper than a killer clown, and while present in the movies, they — especially "Chapter Two" — have a harder time making them stick.

Part one, set in 1989, focuses on the Losers Club battling the demonic Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) as pre-teens and subsists on a Spielbergian, "Stranger Things"-esque charm more than scares. "Chapter Two," in which six of the seven losers return to the small town of Derry, Maine, when the 27-year cycle of murdered children begins anew, is even less frightening. Watching a bunch of near-40-year-olds go up against a clown is more absurd than scary, which probably is why one of the movie's most effective scenes finds Pennywise luring a small girl under the bleachers at a baseball game.

Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one who stayed in Derry, makes the calls that bring everybody else back to town for a reunion they never anticipated. There's Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), now a writer of horror novels and films, married to a movie star (Jess Wexler); Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), a stand-up comic; Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), once the shy kid who wrote poetry, now a successful, slimmed-down architect; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), who's turned his neurosis into a career as a risk analyst; and Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), a fashion designer trapped in a loveless marriage. Meek Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) gets a call, too, but doesn't make the trip.

The casting is impeccable, and the characters' personalities are so well defined as this point, that when they gather at a Chinese restaurant with only a vague understanding of why they are there — their memories of Derry have all but vanished — it truly feels like a reunion of long-lost friends. They effortlessly slip into old roles and familiar rhythms, as if more than a quarter century had been only a brief time apart.

Depicting this bond is where both movies excel the most. Just as soon as they're back together, though, Mike sends them on their separate ways, on personal missions he believes are necessary to perform a ritual he hopes will defeat Pennywise for good this time.

Hader is the highlight among the cast. Always ready with a one-liner, he plays the role as if Richie had watched the first movie, which is sort of how it feels when recalling events from so long ago. In a film that goes for laughs more often than you might expect, Hader is the MVP. He also skillfully underplays a new aspect of the character that lends Richie unexpected depth.

A subplot involving Bev's husband tracking her down has been excised completely; nevertheless, Bev gets some of the meatier material, as she visits her old apartment and confronts memories of her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert).

Much of the focus remains on the one the others always looked to for leadership, Bill, who rediscovers his guilt over his little brother's murder, giving him even more motivation than the others to stop Pennywise.

And then there's the love triangle of Bev, Bill and Ben, which isn't developed enough to become the major emotional plot point it's intended to be, relying primarily on Ben's pining in the first movie and one three-line poem.

The younger actors from part one appear in flashbacks, and Muschietti employs clever transitions to move from present to past and back again without cutting. It's enough to make me want to see a version of both movies that tells the entire story in this manner, as King does so well in his novel.

In a running joke, characters repeatedly chastise Bill for writing great books with terrible endings, a criticism that has been aimed at King through the years. It's ironic, then, that the movie throws out one of the writer's weirdest yet strongest finales — sorry, space turtle fans — in favor of a run-of-the-mill, CGI-heavy climax and overly sentimental denouement.

For all it does right, namely its depiction of the characters and their relationships, "Chapter Two" can't stay out of its own way, its overblown sense of self-importance weighing it down when it should float.

Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language and some crude sexual material. 169 minutes.

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