If recent pop culture fans know The Addams Family at all, they probably remember it as a 1960s TV show, a 2010 Broadway musical, or a set of 1990s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. But the “creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky” family actually started life as a series of satirical cartoons drawn by Charles Addams and published in The New Yorker between 1938 and 1988. The hook of the glossy new animated feature about the macabre family is that it returns to the look of those original Addams cartoons, capturing the tentacled train of Morticia’s dress, Gomez’s rotund figure, and Wednesday’s oval face in perfect verisimilitude.
Yet even as animation veterans and Sausage Party co-directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan hark back to the origins of The Addams Family, they fail to capture the spirit that made the clan such a hit to begin with. Their take on The Addams Family isn’t a scream, it’s a painfully generic kids’ film.
Like most soft-pedaled children’s movies, their Addams family makes a vague gesture toward a meaningful life lesson — in this case, a timely message about the importance of recognizing people’s humanity, regardless of their differences. The film places the Addamses in the 21st century to comment on how witch hunts of old have transformed into paranoid online neighborhood watch groups. The morbid sensibility of the Addams family serves as a metaphor for any kind of otherness that prevents bigots from seeing their neighbors as equals. It’s a welcome thematic centerpiece, one that almost achieves a genuine sense of poignancy. Unfortunately, The Addams Family is so bland, unfunny, and poorly structured that even the best intentions can’t elevate it.
After a brief prologue depicting the morose wedding of sophisticated Gomez Addams (Oscar Isaac) and his proudly icy bride Morticia (Charlize Theron), the film leaps ahead to the classic Addams Family status quo. Gomez and Morticia are happily ensconced in a ghoulish haunted house with their murderously deadpan daughter Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and their explosively dangerous son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). Loyal servants Lurch and Thing are there, too. And since Pugsley’s impending “Sabre Mazurka” — a sort of bar mitzvah-esque coming-of-age ceremony involving a sword dance — is set to bring the entire extended Addams family into town, Gomez’s brother Fester (Nick Kroll) and his mother Grandmama (Bette Midler) show up early to help with the preparations.
The impending influx of Addamses dovetails with the second half of the plot, which involves a cookie-cutter subdivision that pops up just a stone’s throw away from the Addams’ mansion. The town of “Assimilation” (no points for subtly) is the brainchild of manically perky HGTV-eque designer Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), who plans to sell all 50 of its houses during a live TV special. She’s worried that the dilapidated Addams manor is an eyesore that could scare away potential buyers. Gomez and Morticia, meanwhile, are nervous about venturing back into an outside world that has (literally) burned them before. (Though juxtaposing the macabre with the suburban has long been a cornerstone of The Addams Family mythos, there are times when this new film comes perilously close to feeling like a rip-off of the Hotel Transylvania franchise.)
Yet that’s just one of the more than half a dozen subplots crammed into the film’s 87-minute run time. The Addams Family doesn’t feel like a singular narrative so much as a series of Saturday morning cartoons spliced together. The high point of the season would no doubt be “The One Where Wednesday Goes to Junior High.” In the most interesting through line, Wednesday befriends Margaux’s rebellious daughter Parker (Elsie Fisher) and takes an exploratory mission into the world of teenage girldom. The unlikely friendship inspires Parker to reject her mother’s sunny aesthetic for something more emo, while Wednesday enacts her own form of teenage rebellion by embracing girlish conventionality.
It’s a fun idea that briefly brings Wednesday and Morticia’s mother / daughter relationship to the forefront in a way Sonnenfeld’s films never did. There’s even some intriguing queer subtext in Wednesday and Parker’s relationship. But like most of the subplots in The Addams Family, Wednesday’s storyline unceremoniously peters out. It’s as if the film reaches its required runtime, then just gives up without resolving things.
Another big reason The Addams Family winds up feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon is because of the flat, weightless look of its animation. The visual highpoint comes in the opening moments, with a montage of Morticia’s beauty routine that involves smearing her parents’ ashes on herself as makeup. The rest of the film rarely matches that level of ghoulish creativity. Apart from the occasional clever detail, like the way Wednesday’s pigtails loop into nooses, there isn’t much personality in the way the characters are brought to life. The Addams Family looks more like a 1990s PC game than a big-budget feature.
The vocal performances are similarly lifeless. Few members of the impressively star-studded cast make any kind of impression. (There’s probably a fraud case to be made over advertising Snoop Dogg as the voice of Cousin Itt, given that he only delivers a handful of vocally modulated lines, all in Itt’s signature high-pitched gibberish.) Isaac, Theron, and Moretz are clearly trying their best, but they can’t do much with a painfully unfunny script that relies heavily on cheap reference humor. In one characteristic moment, a cool visual involving a cavalcade of spiders is undercut by a lame one-liner about “surfing the web.” Even when the jokes aren’t terrible, Vernon and Tiernan (working from a screenplay by The Christmas Chronicles’ Matt Lieberman and Corpse Bride’s Pamela Pettler) fail to create any kind of successful comedic timing.
Only Janney rises above the lackluster material to deliver a genuinely scene-stealing villainous turn. This isn’t her first animated role (among other things, she voiced the anxious starfish in Finding Nemo), but she makes an effective case that she should be a regular in the medium. She knows how to give a performance big enough to cut through her character’s plasticity. Still, there’s an irony in coming away from an Addams Family story feeling like the normie villain is more memorable than the Addams tribe.
To be fair, The Addams Family isn’t necessarily worse than a lot of the generic animated kids’ fare that hits theaters these days. It just feels like a bigger disappointment than, say, The Secret Life of Pets 2, because other creators have done so much more with these characters. Though the film pulls its aesthetics from the original cartoons, The Addams Family is clearly a strategic attempt to reach a generation who were raised on the 1990s Sonnenfeld films, and now have kids of their own. But like Disney’s live-action remakes of its animated classics, which target the same nostalgic audience, The Addams Family just serves as an argument for revisiting the originals instead.