It’s been 81 years since Charles Addams introduced the world to The Addams Family, a clutch of morbid weirdos whose monstrous appearance and ghoulish activities were but a thin veneer for an otherwise wholesome and loving American family. Those original comic strips appeared in The New Yorker and were not specifically intended for children, and the original sitcom which aired from 1964-1968 (and lived on for decades in popular reruns) tended to focus on the amorous domestic foibles of Gomez and Morticia Addams rather than on their creepy kids, Wednesday and Pugsley. But the appeal to children was right there from the beginning. Who hasn’t felt like their family was full of freaks?
So it’s hardly shocking that Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s new animated Addams Family movie is – even more than Barry Sonnenfeld’s beloved, blockbuster “family” movies – kids stuff. The filmmakers may be most famous for co-directing the biting religious satire Sausage Party but they’re still the folks who gave you Thomas & Friends and Shrek 2, and it’s those sensibilities that they brought to this insubstantial but adequate adaptation of Charles Addams’ creations.
The Addams Family begins with the wedding of Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac), who can’t even get through their nuptials before the local villagers show up with torches and pitchforks. As Gomez’s brother Fester (Nick Kroll) carries them to safety like a noble steed, they vow to find a new home where they will be free from persecution. Someplace “horrible,” “corrupt” and “where no one in their right mind would be caught dead in.”
So they move to New Jersey and take up residence in a haunted, derelict insane asylum where one of the inmates, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), stays on as their butler. Thirteen years pass and they have two horrible – read: wonderful, but also horrible – children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) who have lived in isolation, unaware that outside their gates, beyond the fog, lies a conformist suburban dystopia called “Assimilation.”
It’s a town where every house looks the same because reality TV host Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) made them that way, but now that she’s drained the swamp the fog has lifted, and Addams Family manor is a gigantic eyesore the whole town can see. So Margaux tries to convince the Addamses to conform, the Addamses try desperately to be accepted for who they are, and Wednesday starts going through a rebellious phase where she wears a pink unicorn barrette, much to the consternation of Morticia, who declares that “everyone knows pink is a gateway color.” Meanwhile, Pugsley is training for his Sword Mazurka, an Addams Family rite of passage that’s a bit like a Bar Mitzvah but with 100% more juggling of deadly blades.
Pugsley’s fear of disappointing Gomez and Wednesday’s efforts to mortify Morticia are the clear focus of this new Addams Family, and like the best stories in the series, they’re almost universally relatable situations but with little gothic twists. As an introduction to the classic characters for very young audiences, Tiernan and Vernon’s film may be just the ticket: it’s a simple but amiable cartoon romp, with a few creepy bits but generally acceptable for children.
Whether adults will be so accepting is another question. The Addams Family doubles down on the slapstick and “funny” music choices (the R.E.M. gag is worth a giggle), but the real humor in this franchise stems from the striking contrast between the Addams and seemingly “normal” society. But the society in Assimilation is anything but normal; it’s an oppressive Stepford suburb where the citizens are easily blank-faced automatons who are easily whipped into xenophobia by Margaux’s manipulations on social media. That part’s almost topical, but mostly the whole A-plot feels arbitrary and phony.
Visually, The Addams Family is frustratingly simplistic. The characters and their environments are often so sparse that they give the appearance of a modest TV special, instead of a theatrical presentation with a studio budget. It’s not an ugly film but at times it feels slightly unfinished, which only makes it harder to immerse yourself in its world.
Then again, this new Addams Family isn’t working overtime to make adults laugh. It’s trying to create an inviting world where children can find new avatars in Charles Addams’ old creations. It’s a film that celebrates the macabre and indicts the establishment, and transforms both sides into broad caricatures. It’s not particularly hilarious or clever, and that’s a shame because it’s got a pitch perfect cast who could do a lot with this material if the material was up to snuff. But once a new generation gets hooked on this version of the creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky family, they can start working their way backwards to the altogether ookier, and significantly more satisfying interpretations of these classic characters.