I know full well I’ll sound like an old fart when I say this, but the target audience for this animated feature film of The Addams Family was many years from even being born when the 1991 live action version was released, and boy howdy, these kids have no idea what they missed. Of course, the irony in such a statement is how anyone my age in 1991 likely said the same of kids then who were not familiar with the TV show, which ran two seasons between 1964 and 1966. And it goes back even further: perhaps elders in the sixties said the very same thing of Charles Addams’s original New Yorker cartoons, which debuted in 1938.
There have been other iterations, including different Saturday morning cartoon series in both the seventies and the nineties—the latter no doubt cashing in on the success of the 1991 film—but Barry Sonnenfeld offered its first theatrically released motion picture treatment in the nineties. Reviews at the time were somewhat mixed, but perhaps no one in 1991 had any idea how well the film would still hold up nearly thirty years later. Both it and its 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values, still contain far fresher wit and visual invention than the film released just last Friday can manage even to strain for.
What makes The Addams Family work is its characters’ understated behaviors within overtly ridiculous circumstances and environments. There’s a uniquely deadpan aspect to the delivery, which, to be fair, the voice work actually attempts here—and by a cast comprised of vast amounts of talent: Oscar Isaac as Gomez; Charlize Theron as Morticia; Chlöe Grace Moretz as Wednesday; Bette Midler as Grandma; Allison Janney as Margaux the vapidly cheery real estate agent; even cameos by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara as Morticia’s deceased parents. But getting so many actors of such caliber together means little when you can’t actually see them performing, and the animation regularly moves away from the dark humor of the property’s origins to outright zaniness. That just doesn’t quite fit the brand. Give me Anjelica Huston an Raul Julia any day; those were people who got it.
Speaking of which, the drawn design of Gomez seems very much like an even cross between Raul Julia—whose natural Puerto Rican accent from the live action films Oscar Isaac is apparently channeling—and John Astin, who played the part in the sixties series. That said, take a look at any of the original New Yorker cartoons and they are clearly a direct inspiration for how the 2019 Addamses are drawn. This is an objectively respectable choice; would that the script, by Matt Lieberman (The Christmas Chronicles), could have lived up to it.
Because ultimately, it’s the story that’s the problem: 2019 The Addams Family has nothing new to offer. It just bounces all over well-worn territory, falling far short of updating its darkly comic sensibility in any of the ways it could have. This would be the first time the Addamses are shown with access to mobile devices, which you would expect to be fertile territory. Instead, smartphones factor into the plot in a way that feels shoehorned in. At least one gag lands, involving Thing’s use of a laptop. With the exception of a sprinkle of authentically inspired chuckles, most of the gags land with a groaning thud.
The Adams Family here is just to . . . cutesy. It’s often outright corny. This is a family whose ideas are supposed to be genuinely subversive, truly dark and twisted but with a wink. The whole notion of “accepting people for who they really are,” a running theme with this family through the decades, only works on a genuine level when there’s a twisted edge to their satire of what we think of as “normal.” This movie, aimed at kids and hammering hard on the “accept differences” message, is all wink and no bite.
Also, as directed by Greg Tiernan and Conran Vernon (Sausage Party), it’s broadly unsubtle. Much of the visuals feature a tornado of movements and explosions (literally: Pugsley, voiced by Finn Wolfhard, has a penchant for explosives). This wouldn’t be so bad if the chaos onscreen had an ounce of clever inspiration to it, but it does not, and neither does the rest of this movie. Unless you want to consider the casting of Snoop Dogg to voice the gibberish of Cousin It “inspired.”
The Addams Family had its time. It had its moments, and they are long passed. The old cartoons hold up; much of the original TV show remains watchable; the live action films from the nineties are eminently rewatchable, deliciously dark comedies. This animated feature is so forgettable no one will remember or care it ever existed before the week is out.