When cartoonist Charles Addams created kooky Addams family as a one-page comic in the late 1930s, the initial gag hinged on how such a morbid clan couldn’t quite comprehend a world unsettled by their ghoulish ways. Over time, the family has permeated every inch of the entertainment complex, from TV shows to movies (and then more TV shows and movies), video games to a stage musical, even an incredibly popular pinball game. At its heart, however, the Addams family has always been a keen gothic metaphor for anyone who has ever felt like an outcast for embracing the macabre.
Which is why the Addams, for all their love of nasty things and affection for decidedly R-rated delights, is perfectly suited for a kid-friendly comedy about the perils of a world that doesn’t value individuality. Alas, that’s easier said than done: Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s animated “The Addams Family” introduces the Addams gang to a new generation by way of a retrofitted origin story that shakily attempts to hold fast to its original charms while cramming it inside decidedly modern trappings.
The film opens with Morticia (Charlize Theron), Gomez (Oscar Isaac), and company fleeing for darker pastures after they’re chased out of another village. But where to go? As Gomez muses, they need “somewhere horrible, somewhere corrupt,” which of course means New Jersey (Charles Addams’ own home state; he’d presumably love the joke). Once there, they stumble upon a haunted and abandoned asylum at the top of a foggy mountain that comes complete with its own former-patient-turned-butler (Lurch, voiced by co-director Vernon). It’s dirty and scary, weird and gross. They love it.
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Despite a concise 87-minute running time, “The Addams Family” spends most of its first act meandering towards the slimmest semblance of a plot. While those pitchfork-wielding opening scenes lay out the film’s principal drama — that this altogether ooky family is just looking for a place to belong, and it soon jumps forward over a decade in time. It’s there that the film introduces Addams kids Wednesday (a delightful Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) with the minimum of fuss — there’s not much else but vague table setting to watch. Eventually, a family reunion to celebrate Pugsley’s transition into manhood is announced, which seems like fodder enough for some narrative high jinks involving a decidedly large and weird family.
And still, that’s not the entire plot. Enter a wonderfully unhinged Allison Janney as the star of a nefarious home remodeling show called “Design Intervention,” which has recently intervened on an entire town, one that just so happens to be located at the foot of the mountain the Addams have lived on for the past 13 years. For a relatively short film aimed at children, “The Addams Family” is oddly plot-heavy, and its attempts to marry the home renovation subplot (which is really about Wednesday) with the impending family reunion (which is really about Pugsley) never quite works. It should, however, because buried in all that convoluted storytelling is, in fact, one coherent narrative: Janney’s Margaux wants to make over the hamlet (literally called Assimilation) into one homogenous hometown, and the arrival of a whole mess of nutty Addams family members threatens that. Still, it’s only during the film’s heartwarming, predictable conclusion that any of that starts to gel.
At least the wacky subplots offer enough visual pizzazz to keep younger audiences engaged, and all those vague messages about the power of being yourself in a world that doesn’t value such things are as important as ever. That’s not to say “The Addams Family” lacks some adult-skewing humor tucked inside this PG-rated movie, from a quick gag about the hand known as Thing’s foot fetish to a series of brutal attacks on Uncle Fester, voiced by an amusingly out-there Nick Kroll. But “The Addams Family” is the most kid-centric spin on the long-running franchise in years. Kids dig gross stuff, and Tiernan and Vernon know when to lavish it on (Wednesday lustly biting into a rotten sandwich is 10 times more amusing than it has any right to be, as is Pugsley literally digging himself out of his own grave).
There are, however, plenty of instances in which “The Addams Family” relies on unappealing visuals. While the look and feel of the family itself is more in line with the characters that populated Addams’ original comic strips (no sexy Gomez here), the juxtaposition between mostly unflattering character design and the consistently imaginative spaces they get to occupy (from the family mansion itself to its sprawling grounds and even the creepy, Stepford-esque town just empty enough to look foreboding) is jarring. Sure, the Addams family is built to be creepy, but when a bottomless pit offers more visual interest than a family member whose defining characteristic is a large screw through his cranium, something has gone amiss.
If nothing else, “The Addams Family” is the only current film that can boast opening credits that proclaim the casting of “Snoop Dogg as It.” You can tell he’s hip now because the “Cousin” part is gone, along with that extra “t” — although when the movie introduces It with Snoop’s own “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” it subtly mutes out any and all mentions of “pigs trying to get at you.” And yet, if the Addams family can teach us anything, it that’s the pigs will try to get at you, but it’s up to you to resist and remember the power of being kooky on your own terms.
United Artists Releasing will release “The Addams Family” in theaters on Friday, October 11.