Adaptation leaps into 21st century, doesn’t bring ‘Addams Family’ with it

The character designs are tightly grounded in the original comics. Images courtesy United Artists Releasing.

3/10 I didn’t really know how I felt about The Addams Family as a property going into last weekend. The Barry Sonnenfeld movies straddle my birth in 1992, causing them to have a massive cultural influence on me despite my having never sat down and watched them until the runup to this new movie. One of the first special effects exhibits I ever saw was on these movies.

I started preparing for this new Addams Family with the firm belief that these characters should never be animated, ignorant of the fact they began as comic strips back in 1938 and this new animated movie is meant to be designed around those comics. This property is definitely ripe for revisitation, and it could have been really cool – Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday Addams in the Sonnenfeld films, is 39, a year younger than Angelica Huston was when she played her mother, Morticia – and I guess I can’t object to it being a cartoon.

I do object to this particular cartoon, however.

After being driven away from their residence for what’s implied to be the umpteenth time, Gomez and Morticia Addams (Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron) settle in an abandoned mountaintop New Jersey mental hospital and have two children, Wednesday and Pugsley (Chloë Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard). About a decade later, an intentional community, which is a completely real and just as horrifically white as it sounds thing, helmed by reality TV home makeover star Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), moves into the valley beneath, and they don’t appreciate the haunted mansion overlooking their new town. Also, Pugsley is approaching the Mazurka, a sort of saber-themed bar mitzvah, but he prefers demolitions to swordplay. Also, the homeschooled Wednesday rebels against the family’s dour affect and goes to middle school.

The Addams Family may have been ripe for revisitation as a property, but this cartoon really doesn’t do that. Instead of a genuine update on material that’s 81 years old now, this Addams Family is a cheap cashgrab, deeply grounded in the flaws of cheap, uncared for 2019 dreck, using its source material only as window dressing.

Barely any of it actually has to do with what makes The Addams Family special. It’s filled with cultural references – they quote the pina colada song, of all things, within the first minute – that could have been plopped into any old movie. It’s consistently willing to weaken individual characterizations for the sake of the immediate gag, a calling card of weak 2010s comedies and a signal that source material wasn’t much of a guiding principal overall. I actually lost count of uses of the word “lit,” and there’s even an erectile dysfunction joke in there. The goal seems to be to keep parents and teens interested during family movie night, which this movie hopes to earn favor for over Maleficent: Mistress of Evil over the Halloween weeks, but I don’t see the point in trying to appeal to anyone old enough to remember how much better the ‘90s movies were.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of laughs. Highlights include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash of Thing looking at sexy feet pictures and a great rule of three application that ends with Lurch (Conrad Vernon) beautifully singing “Everybody Hurts.” It’s disappointing for a property that remains so keenly remembered to rely on plug-and-play pop references instead of what should make this movie special. 

The smear of pop-culture quips isn’t just a creative letdown — it explicitly makes no sense for a family of shut-ins to have this degree of pop-culture sensitivity. Why is Morticia making It jokes if she hasn’t been outside in 15 years?

The family’s macabre sensibilities are heightened into a driving factor of the plot, causing them to be persecuted as monsters, but even with heavy exaggeration, most of the Addams aren’t weird at all in 2019. Gomez and Pugsley are just guys. Morticia and Wednesday are pale women with strong senses of gallows humor, not unlike quite a few women I’ve known personally over the years, which makes sense given how heavily the Addams family has influenced American culture. These people are normal now. They’re leaning in to one of the most poorly aged elements of the material with this angle.

These characters don’t work when they’re not set against a straight man — they never did, but they especially don’t now that they’re essentially normal people with a certain aesthetic — but they’re deprived of that in this adaptation. They spend most of their time cooped up in their mansion, deliberately isolated from the world. The closest thing this movie has to a straight man is Needler, who is set up as a suburban dictator who commands conformity from all her neighbors. 

This lack of understanding or care for opportunities to set this production apart is reflected in the movie’s kitchen sink approach to conflict. In addition to Addams vs society, we have mother and daughter and father and son set against each other in extremely generic teenage rebellion storylines, with Wednesday actively revolting and Pugsley quietly pining to do the Mazurka his own way. These storylines are made by taking Addams Family vocabulary and bending it into a framework of standard conflict, not by finding a conflict that fits both standard ideas and this material. 

I kind of doubt that there was any work at all done with the voice cast. Voice actor emotions don’t match the animation at all in a way that makes a noticeable number of scenes feel weird. It really comes out with Wolfhard, who seems like he doesn’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth as he says them. The more experienced Theron and Isaac are better able to figure out their contexts, though Theron in particular is still significantly overacting her lines. 

This is seriously the villain’s actual haircut.

The whole film is subtextually about President Donald Trump persecuting Jews. Between Pugsley’s thinly veiled bar mitzvah, Nick Kroll’s sickly Semitic lisp as Fester Addams and the context of the Addams being repeatedly driven from their homes on account of their being “different,” they’re heavily coded as Jews, and the villain, Needler, is overtly coded as a Trump stand-in. She’s a reality TV personality and a real-estate mogul with absolutely perfect hair who surveils everyone and actually threatens to deport the Addams at the end of the movie.

It’s a weird choice for a whole slew of different reasons and kind of echoes Joker from the weekend prior – they have metaphors about society they’re clearly going for, but apparently no understanding of what those metaphors mean or how or why they should be made. The obvious implication is persecution is bad and Trump is bad and Trump’s persecution of the Jews is bad, even if that persecution has been purely subtextual so far, but coding a family of literal monsters as Jews is pretty directly anti-Semitic on its own.

Even without knowing the breadth of material this movie had to draw from going in, I knew it should have been more creative than that. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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