There are a lot of ways that one could describe the characters who are the focus of today’s retrospective. Some might call them “creepy” and “kooky”. Others might say they’re “mysterious” and “spooky”. And yet, most would agree that “they’re altogether ooky”. Yes, folks, today we’re celebrating the classic franchise that is The Addams Family. It all began in 1938 when cartoonist Charles Addams first published a series of cartoons for The New Yorker which introduced audiences to the titular family of Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, Thing, Lurch the butler, and Cousin Itt. The cartoons served as a satire of the all-American family by having the Addams Family fully embrace their macabre lifestyle without any regard for those who find their antics disturbing. Suffice it to say, they were a huge hit, resulting in the characters transitioning into other forms of media. Arguably their most famous spin-off is the classic TV series starring Carolyn Jones and John Astin as Morticia and Gomez that ran from 1964 to 1966. Aside from that, there were also a few animated series made by Hanna-Barbera (with one of them notably featuring a then 11-year-old Jodie Foster as Pugsley) and more recent works such as a Broadway musical in 2010. But for the purpose of today’s retrospective, we’ll be focusing on the characters’ appearances in feature films which, since the ’90s, have primarily consisted of two major cinematic incarnations. First, there’s the 1991 live-action adaptation that was followed by a sequel in 1993, resulting in a pair of films that have very much become staples of the Halloween programming blocks for networks like Freeform. Then, there’s the franchise’s recent animated outing that came out last year and is set to get a sequel sometime next year (you know, unless COVID-19 subjects it to the same issues that have plagued countless other upcoming releases). And so, without further ado, prepare to snap your fingers to Vic Mizzy’s iconic theme song as we look at the Addams Family films.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991)
We begin with the first live-action film adaptation of The Addams Family, which was released in 1991 and was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Before he went on to direct films like the original Men in Black trilogy, this film served as his directorial debut after starting out in the industry as a cinematographer on many of the Coen brothers’ early films like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona and other classics such as Big and Misery. Unfortunately for him, though, the film’s production was consistently plagued with problems such as health issues for multiple members of the cast and crew, a change in cinematographers that even forced Sonnenfeld to step in and do it himself for a stretch of time and, most infamously, a change in the distributor. Originally handled by Orion Pictures, the studio ended up selling the film to Paramount out of fear that it would be another commercial flop for them at a time when they were struggling financially (sure enough, they would ultimately end up filing for bankruptcy that year). But upon its release, the film did quite well at the box-office as it grossed over $191 million worldwide on its relatively modest $30 million budget, and while its overall critical reception was mixed at best, it’s clear that it managed to be a hit with audiences and it’s easy to see why. Overall, the film does a great job of capturing the madcap atmosphere of the original show and the delightfully dark and twisted visual style of Charles Addams’ original cartoons right down to some spot-on recreations of key moments from the latter. Plus, it’s all bolstered by an excellent ensemble headlined by Raul Julia, who is delightfully theatrical as Gomez, and Angelica Huston, who’s a practically pitch-perfect fit for the role of Morticia. This makes up for what is easily the film’s biggest shortcoming in that anything that doesn’t directly involve the Addams family (namely, everything regarding the main antagonist, a loan shark who tries to disguise her adopted son as the long-lost Uncle Fester to steal the Addams’ fortune) is a lot weaker by comparison. Ultimately, though, the film still manages to be a solidly entertaining (albeit far from perfect) romp that, at the end of the day, ends up being one of the better adaptations of an old television sitcom from the ’60s, a subgenre that notably trended in the ’90s as evident from other TV-to-film adaptations such as The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Dennis the Menace.
ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)
Fueled by the first film’s success at the box-office, Paramount quickly developed a sequel, Addams Family Values, which hit theaters in 1993 and saw the return of both director Barry Sonnenfeld and most of the main cast from the previous film (save for Judith Malina, who was replaced in the role of Grandmama by Carol Kane). The film also took on a much different tone compared to its predecessor as it was more reliant on its macabre humor rather than its efforts to replicate the zany antics of the TV series, which is ultimately the catalyst behind it being one of the rare cases of a genuinely superior sequel. Yes, thanks to this pivotal change in direction, Family Values is a lot more consistent with its humor and, really, is just a better-made film, for the most part. Much of this has to do with it having a far superior villain than its predecessor thanks to Joan Cusack’s delightfully campy turn as Debbie, a gold-digging femme fatale who marries Uncle Fester with the intent of killing him to collect the inheritance. The only real downside, though, is that, because the film is largely focused on Fester and Debbie’s relationship, it results in Raul Julia and Angelica Huston not getting as much to do this time around as Gomez and Morticia. But at the very least, the film makes up for this by simultaneously giving Christina Ricci a larger role as the precociously cynical Wednesday. Ricci had already made a great impression in the role back in the first film, but thanks to this film’s subplot in which Wednesday and Pugsley are sent away to an overly chipper summer camp and, naturally, cause a whole bunch of chaos there, she’s far and away its biggest standout. With all this in mind, I can safely say that if you were among those who found to be the first live-action Addams Family film to be a bit underwhelming, I believe that you’ll probably get a lot more out of this one. It truly is a great example of a sequel that managed to improve upon its predecessor in almost every possible way and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the film that was largely responsible for the positive reputation that this duology has maintained over the years.
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2019)
And finally, we cut to nearly three decades later when the Addams Family made their return to the big screen in a new animated feature, which served as the second outing for the directing duo of Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan after the smash hit that was 2016’s Sausage Party. Obviously, these two films are quite different from each other when it comes to both their target audiences and their overall sense of humor, but in this case, Vernon and Tiernan do manage to maintain much of the consistent humor that we saw from Sausage Party. Yes, there are quite a lot of modern references (as is admittedly the case with a lot of modern adaptations of older bits of source material), but for the most part, they don’t completely overtake the film to the point where they overshadow anything that made this franchise so popular in the first place. In other words, this new film does just as great of a job as the live-action films did when it comes to capturing the zany and macabre nature of the titular family, especially when it comes to its overall visual style. While there was some… to be perfectly blunt, rather hyperbolic backlash towards the Addams family’s character designs (which seemingly only stemmed from most folks’ fondness for the live-action films), these designs brilliantly match the look of Charles Addams’ original cartoons. And just like the live-action films, they’re brought to life by a terrific ensemble, from Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron as Gomez and Morticia to Chloe Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard as Wednesday and Pugsley. Really, the only ‘negative’ thing that I can say about this film is that the main plot is your standard ‘fish out of water’ story with some blatantly obvious payoffs. Despite this, though, this new take on The Addams Family does manage to be a solidly entertaining family flick, and while I didn’t end up seeing this when it first came out exactly one year ago, I’m certainly interested in seeing what will come from next year’s sequel.