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The Addams Family (2019)

The end of WWII meant that a vast array of wartime shortages and rationings had been lifted, in turn allowing various companies to manufacture and sell new equipment for commercial use. It also meant the return of so many soldiers who would go home to their families and start the Baby Boom. Throw in the 1947 World Series, and suddenly every home had to have this new commercially available invention called the Television.

In short order, the sitcom — a long-established genre in radio — was adapted into this new medium. By 1964, we already had “Mary Kay and Johnny”, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, “Leave it to Beaver,” “I Love Lucy”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “The Flintstones”, and others. “The Brady Bunch” was right around the corner. Not just voices on the radio, these characters were seen on every television screen, visiting every living room in America on a weekly basis. More than anything else, these shows are what defined the squeaky-clean patriarchal modern nuclear family that is still more or less considered the default to this day.

Enter the Addams Family.

Yes, Charles Addams had created his series of cartoons all the way back in 1938. They’ve been a constant pop culture presence for the past eighty years through various films, TV shows, theatrical productions, and more. (To say nothing of the pinball game, a revolutionary best-seller worthy of its own article.) Yet it’s the 1964 TV show that is still the family’s most iconic portrayal, and likely the most responsible for the franchise’s enduring presence. Little wonder, as this iteration introduced that relentlessly catchy theme song.

More importantly, it makes perfect sense that the Addamses would flourish in the time and the medium in which the American family was most ubiquitous and clearly defined. The Addams Family had always been designed as a happy, loving, supportive family unit that just happened to have a peculiar taste for the macabre. Compare that to the petty squabbles of such materialistic and well-to-do families as the Cleavers, the Ricardos, and the Flintstones. Of course the satirical aspect of the Addams Family was at its clearest when they shared the airwaves with what they were satirizing.

Flash forward to today. Incidentally, a time of general nostalgia for the ’90s — the last great Addams Family heyday under Barry Sonnenfeld, Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christina Ricci, et al.

While the notion of the “traditional” nuclear family is still quite prevalent, there are no shortage of other combinations and permutations. We’ve got step-relatives, half-relatives, same-sex marriages, interracial marriages, polyamorous marriages, kids born out of wedlock, couples cohabitating without marriage, adoptive and foster families, kids raised by their siblings or cousins, you name it. Our culture is slowly but surely starting to redefine the notion of family, steadily becoming more inclusive and accepting of other lifestyles and philosophies, even despite a more conservative culture that would rather maintain the simple and straightforward patriarchy.

It’s hard to say what this means for the Addams Family and their offbeat brand of satire. Are they outdated and obsolete, more relevant than ever, or right at the sweet spot in between? Either way, we were absolutely due to revisit the property. So get a witch’s shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on — we’re gonna pay a call on the Addams family. *snap snap*

The movie is kind of an origin story, as it opens with the wedding of Gomez and Morticia Addams, respectively voiced by Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron. Luckily, this is only a brief prologue, just long enough to establish the Addams’ mistrust of the world at large, thus augmenting the conflict and stakes. In general, Gomez and Morticia primarily serve as supporting characters for the arcs of their children.

Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) is under tremendous pressure from his father, because there’s going to be a huge family reunion in which Pugsley has to perform and excel in a family coming-of-age rite of passage. Basically, Pugsley’s entire value as a man and an Addams rests on his ability to perform some kind of elaborate saber dance, while his talent and passion rest primarily in heavy ordnance.

Meanwhile, Wednesday (Chloe Moretz) is starting to take an interest in the outside world, after spending her first thirteen years inside the gated walls of the mansion. Long story short, she takes it upon herself to enroll in the local middle school, partly to learn about life outside the mansion and partly to terrorize other kids her age. And she gets to rebel against her mother in the bargain.

This brings us to Margaux Needler, voiced by Allison Janney. She’s a reality TV mogul who made her name off of redesigning houses to be shiny, plastic, and pastel-colored. Rounding out the cast is Margaux’s daughter (Parker, voiced by Elsie Fisher), who’s grown frustrated with Margaux’s workaholic domineering. Thus Parker befriends Wednesday, serving as a kind of arbiter between the two families.

Anyway, Margaux’s latest publicity stunt is the city of Assimilation, where everything is bright and happy and mass-produced. It’s an artificial town, made to sell her brand of McMansions on her show. Trouble is, she built the town by draining an especially large New Jersey swamp, thus lifting the fog that kept the Addams Family mansion safely out of view. Thus the Addams Mansion and the Needler empire are made unwitting neighbors, mere days before distant Addams Family relatives are set to descend upon the town for the aforementioned reunion. Hilarity ensues.

It can’t be denied that the premise is thin, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is predictable. It’s a shame that so many watershed moments don’t hit as hard as they should, a natural consequence of foregone payoffs borne of cliched setups. Hell, even when the setups are interesting, the filmmakers botch the follow-through. Some random neighbor gets lost in the mansion and it could’ve been a great running gag, but nothing comes of it. Wednesday meets a bully (Bethany, voiced by Chelsea Frei) and it’s built up to be this huge epic conflict, but the movie does jack-all with it.

Even the themes are cliched. There’s a lot about parenting, growing up, children growing into their independence and learning how to be their own people, non-conformity, and so on. Hell, the teaser implied some measure of commentary about “non-traditional” families (as I alluded to previously), but the movie proper never even hints at going there. Such a waste of potential.

Instead, all we get is stuff we’ve already seen umpteen times in so many other family films, but these are also themes that mesh perfectly well with the source material. Additionally, the filmmakers submit that the Addamses and the Needlers are simply two sides of the same coin, each of them putting pressure on their children to be exactly like them. That was a pretty bold step to take, even if the film leans on the side of the Addamses (the family that eventually agrees to tolerate their kids’ deviant ways). Oh, and everything is conveniently reset in the ending so the Addamses don’t have to actually change anything.

I’d also like to point out that Margeaux primarily works through reality TV and social media, using both to influence mob mentality and enforce her sanitized vision of civilized life. As a reminder, reality TV and social media weren’t really a thing in the 1960s, or even the 1990s. Thus the movie examines the franchise’s classic themes of conformity and social pressure in a distinctly 21st century way, thereby helping to justify this latest reboot. Not bad.

This is not in any way a subtle film, but let’s be real — the Addams Family was never much for subtlety. And again, this franchise has been around for eighty freaking years — trying to make something new out of something that’s been so ubiquitous for so long is a REALLY tall order. To wit: Batman and Superman have been around for just as long — how many times have we seen their respective origin stories done to death?

It also doesn’t help that the franchise was never all that deep to begin with. Frankly, it was miracle enough that anyone was able to get two seasons of a half-hour TV sitcom out of a one-panel cartoon series. But then, there’s a reason why we’re talking about the Addams Family and not the Family Circus right now: The characters.

This movie absolutely does right by its characters, and I cannot stress that enough. This family still has a fascination with the dangerous and the macabre, but what’s far more important, it never comes off as a quirk. They’re not trying to murder and maim each other for the sake of being contrary, they’re doing it because it’s their idea of playing with each other. There’s a sense that this family genuinely finds beauty and joy in the strange and unusual, and that’s easily the single most important factor in making this whole property work.

Of course, it also helps that this voice cast is positively flawless. Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Allison Janney, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Tituss Burgess, Elsie Fisher, Pom Klementieff… the list goes on and on. Even director Conrad Vernon gets in on the voice acting, wringing every last bit of comedy that Lurch is worth. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, sharing a brief voice appearance as Morticia’s deceased parents. Yes, that’s even more hilarious than it sounds.

From Wednesday’s breathy monotone to Uncle Fester’s cartoonish squeal, every single voice is note-perfect. This doesn’t even sound remotely like a cast artificially packed with marquee names, it sounds like the freaking Addams Family! That said, I’m inclined to give less credit to Snoop Dogg — it could’ve been literally anyone voicing the high-pitched gibberish of Cousin Itt. Also, while Thing is of course mute, I want to give the animators all due credit for bringing such outsized personality to a disembodied hand.

Even when the filmmakers take liberties, it fits perfectly with what we know and love about the property. Easily the most prominent example is the mansion itself — now, it’s a former mental asylum in New Jersey, haunted by malicious spirits. The mansion is thus made a character unto itself, which makes all kinds of sense. Oh, and Lurch is now an escaped inmate from the selfsame asylum. Again, it works.

Then there’s the animation. I know it’s been a while since we’ve had an animated rendition of the Addams Family, but it makes all kinds of sense. For one thing, again, it calls back to the days when these characters existed in a hand-drawn medium. Also, the characters have a pet lion who could do far more in animation than live-action or photo-real CGI could allow.

Animation allows the set designs, prop designs, character designs, and all the various movements to be exaggerated in a way that live-action could never allow. The visual style is much creepier and funnier in a way that fits more closely to the Addams brand of off-kilter dark humor. Perhaps most importantly, because absolutely zero attempt was made at photo-realism, it sets the movie in a more heightened world where the Addamses could plausibly exist. Granted, while this helps to suspend disbelief with regards to how the Addamses are apparently indestructible, it doesn’t do much to explain why some random civilian just happens to have a goddamn functioning siege catapult ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That said, the only character design that really didn’t work for me was Parker. I get that the animators were trying to make the character into a middle ground between the Addamses and the Needlers, but she looks awful. Those two families are entirely different styles that are not the least bit compatible.

On a final note, there’s the iconic theme song. If you’re hoping the filmmakers found some way to make use of that theme song… well, let’s just say you won’t be disappointed. It’s sure a hell of a lot better than whatever pop-rap monstrosity got put over the end credits.

All told, I had a great time with The Addams Family (2019). Yes, the plot is razor-thin, with scenes and jokes nowhere near as effective as they should’ve been. Even so, I really want to give the animators and the voice cast all due credit for bringing the characters to such vivid life. While the themes and plotlines are all threadbare, and I wish the filmmakers had the guts to make any kind of statement about the modern non-nuclear family, the heart and funny bone of the franchise are 100 percent intact.

For such an old and well-worn franchise in a time and place far different from the world of 80 years ago, it’s no small accomplishment that this movie earns the right to exist. It’s frankly even more impressive that the filmmakers crafted a new iteration of the family that is distinctly their own, and yet recognizable as the Addams Family we all know and love.

For a quick and easy bit of Halloween fluff, shallow fun for all ages, this one gets a recommendation.

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