Charles Addams’ oddball family has gone through numerous formats over the years, appearing first as single-panel cartoons in The New Yorker over a span of fifty years beginning in 1938, and then serving as the basis of ABC’s live-action sitcom in the sixties, an animated TV series and a “reunion” telefilm, a second animated series and a revived live-action one, before finally culminating in a trio of live-action feature films in the nineties and a Broadway musical in 2010.
One might have thought that this list would have exhausted the potential of the property, as well as the audience; but one should never underestimate the staying power of a good ghoul, or family of them. Impelled, no doubt, by the success of such monster-based animated movies as “Despicable Me” and “Hotel Transylvania” (as well as “Monsters, Inc.”), we’re now given a feature-length animated version of “The Addams Family,” with sequels (or perhaps a cable series) undoubtedly already in the pipeline. And its convergence with the season of tricks-or-treats is hardly accidental.
The first thing to note about the movie is that visually it’s extremely impressive. The craftsmen at the various creative companies behind the production have done an extraordinary job of capturing the look of Addams’ originals, with the addition of course of some touches of color to the characters. The voice work—from Oscar Isaac (Gomez), Charlize Theron (Morticia), Chloë Grace Moretz (Wednesday), Finn Wolfhard (Pugsley), Nick Kroll (Uncle Fester), Conrad Vernon (Lurch) and Bette Midler (Grandma)—to deal with only the major characters—is also fine. (The non-vocal performance of disembodied hand Thing is consistently amusing, too.)
Meanwhile writers Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler have done a nice job of situating the family in the world and investing the whole household with Addams’ darkly macabre outlook, from the estate’s furnishings to the family members’ peculiar perspective on things. They start with Gomez and Morticia’s wedding more than a decade ago, when they were run out of town by angry neighbors. They wind up at an abandoned asylum in New Jersey, of all places, picking up Lurch along the way. That becomes the Addams mansion high atop a perpetually fog-shrouded mountain, totally cut off from the outer world.
The fidelity to the Addams spirit extends to one of the major subplots—Pugsley’s upcoming initiation into Addams family manhood, a ceremony called a mazurka (called after the Polish dance, and presumably indicative of the clan’s Eastern European origins). It involves some amusing training sessions in swordsmanship for the explosive-obsessed kid, and more importantly allows for a big family reunion that’s perhaps a mite overpopulated with curiosities, but does include appearances by Grandma’s domineering sister Sloom (Jenifer Lewis) and hairy wonder It (“voiced,” if that’s the proper term, by Snoop Dogg).
So far, so good. Unfortunately, the larger plot is a compilation of the clichés common to today’s animated family flicks—a none-too-subtle message about embracing diversity, especially in terms of unconventional family units. The theme of “family values” among the Addams clan is okay, of course (after all, it’s in the title of one of the live-action features), and theoretically building another plot thread around Wednesday’s adolescent rebellion as she goes off into the larger world and finds other possibilities isn’t a bad one, especially because it gives Moretz a chance to shine.
Unhappily that subplot is tied into the overarching narrative about the hostility of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), the obligatory villain. She’s a TV reality star specializing in house restoration and sees the Addams place as in dire need of her services. It simply has to be fixed up before the premiere of her latest broadcast extravaganza, showcasing the town she’s built near the Addams estate—a “perfect” place called Assimilation, whose mantra is conformity. She’s horrified when the fog enveloping the mountain lifts, bringing the Addams brood into the community she’s forged into a lock-step mentality through, among other things, spy cameras in all the pastel-colored ticky-tack houses. When she fails in her efforts to reform the Addams family to her liking, she rouses the residents against them. Of course, that plan fails and universal amity becomes the order of the day.
Wednesday’s acting out is connected with this heavy-handed plea for tolerance by the fact that she falls in with Margaux’s equally dissatisfied daughter Parker (Elsie Fisher). The result—which involves revenge against the middle school’s mean girl clique and each adopting fashion quirks from the other—is pretty limp. Still, even here there are some bright moments—a parody of a famous scene from “Frankenstein” in a biology class, for instance. It, and many of the dialogue jokes, are groaners, but that’s what the adaptations of the Addams clan have always traded in, and they regularly elicit chuckles at their familiarity (and penchant for puns).
So “The Addams Family” is, with its clichéd diversity message, blander than it might have been, but the striking visuals and general good humor—combined, of course, with the nostalgia factor—should make it an agreeable pastime for both kids and adults.
And of course it raises the question: can “The Munsters” be far behind?