LOOK OUT! SPOILERS AHEAD!
With a new adaptation in the works, it’s about time to take a look at the two Addams Family movies from the early 1990s. Originally based on Charles Addams’ famed cartoons, the Addams Family were part of a one panel gag for the New Yorker magazine. Addams’ style of humor was to satirize the modern lifestyle in a macabre way. His characters were so popular, they have been brought to life more than once through the famous 1964 TV series and a couple of Saturday morning cartoon incarnations. The one people seem to remember the most are the live-action theatrical films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and for good reason.
Both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values are the closest thing to a perfect take on the New Yorker cartoon and TV show. I say that because both movies have their own set of positives and negatives. And yet, the negatives themselves can be overlooked for enjoyment value. The cast and crew is having a good time and there is a lot of good writing behind capturing why we love this creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky family.
First, let’s talk about the cast, seeing some of them return to reprise their roles the sequel. This is hands down as good of a perfect casting as it will get. Raul Julia is passionate as Gomez, Anjelica Huston is lovely as Morticia, Christopher Lloyd is zany as Uncle Fester, Christina Ricci’s menace to Wednesday is memorable, the list just goes on. Everyone takes a part and really breathes a lot of life into these characters. The chemistry between Julia and Huston is so sexy that you feel like these two have been together through Hell and back. They soak in this lifestyle of dark and misery to the point they relish in it. Everyone’s performance is so good that you almost believe these characters are real.
The only difference in the casting of both films is that for some reason they don’t use Judith Malina for Grandmama Addams in the sequel. Carol Kane takes on the role and honestly, I think her performance is more animated. No offense to Malina as she does a good job, but Kane’s take is more lively and funnier. That’s not to say Malina is bad as she has a lot of funny moments. It’s a personal preference, but I think both actresses do a good job.
Even the look of the movie is good too. The cinematography and sets do a great job noting when to allow the amount of color. When we see the family out in the real world, their Gothic garb stands out as everything is bright and vibrant. When they are home, it feels perfectly bleak and gloomy. These are movies where you could spend hours looking at the sets and marveling at the detail.
Another huge positive is the comedy. Both movies are equally hilarious respecting the campy nature of the 1964 TV series and the darker Charles Addams cartoon. There are jokes and gags that nearly push the barrier of comfort, but still don’t go too far. Some gags are rarely uncomfortable and it’s never taken as being mean-spirited. In the sequel, a villain reveals her family history through a slideshow right before she tries to kill the whole Addams clan. Now that is a clever idea. We see pictures of her killing her husbands in action and it’s played for laughs as oppose to adding the fear factor.
The movie environment also has the ability to push beyond the limits and restrictions of previous incarnations. A prime example is the use of the family’s pet Thing, who is very a disembodied hand who likes to help around the house. Originally seen in a box, we actually get to see the helpful hand run about the whole place and it feels more like a full-moving character. Special credit goes to Christopher Hart who has to perform with his own hand. I can imagine something like this is not easy to do and I give high marks on it.
So your probably thinking with good things plugging into the production, surly there is a good story to go with all these positive things? Well, as you have noticed, it’s the last thing I think about when remembering these movies. Story is sadly the weakest link in both movies. With the exception of the first one, at least Addams Family Values tries to improve and be more of a plot-driven film. But alas, even Values falls into the same traps as the first.
Let’s begin with the first one, because that one feels like the more problematic of the two. Uncle Fester is missing, because of an fight he had with Gomez years ago, and Gomez greatly regrets it. While that’s going on, Gomez’s lawyer (Dan Hedaya) knows of a great fortune the family has and schemes to get it so he can pay off a loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson). As it turns out, the loan shark’s son (Christopher Lloyd) looks eerily similar to the lost brother and plan to disguise him as Fester in order to gain access to the family’s vault. And as expected, the Addams are fooled, but as time goes on, the “impostor” starts to feel right at home with the odd folks. Oh, and there is this added twist where the loan shark plans to double cross the laywer, but it’s only mentioned once never making much of an impact later on.
So, the story is really all over the map here. In fact, we forget about the con and just focus on the family more than the plot. This results in us staying around the house and getting to know these people more. Once in a while, they do head out into the real world to engage in a public auction or, later on, try to fit in with modern life. The scenes of them trying to act within a “normal” society carry the most laughs as folks, opposite to the Addams’ lifestyle, have a hard time gelling with their darker interests. I won’t give too much of the scenes away for new viewers, but it does lead to a lot of hilarious scenes.
But when we jump back to the plot, all the fun and gags take a hard break. When we want to see more of the family, we have to be reminded something is going on and it will lead to a split with the folks. The only positive aspect from this is one crucial change from the cartoon and TV series. In the movie, Fester is actually Gomez’s brother, where-else he’s Morticia’s uncle. This is one thing I do feel is the strength of the movie as Gomez tries to bond with his “brother” who doesn’t seem to warm up to the bizarre oddities.
It’s a shame story is not a crucial as our only carry through the movie are a series of scenes. And these are really well-written. My favorite one is when Morticia gives “Fester” a tour of the graveyard showing the family history. It’s eerie but bittersweet seeing all the tombstones of dead relatives. Everything about it is so pitch perfect. The atmosphere, the mood and even the music is perfectly scored.
I feel bad the story is not that interesting and yet, we get a pile of really good moments struggling for connection. There’s even a set piece of a sequence where they perform a big dance sequence called the Mamushka. Here you have a scene where they pause the plot to do all these stunts and sing. It’s a show stopping moment that makes you wish there were more like it. Ironic as the Mamushka was intended to be longer, but a test screening audience felt the scene was too much resulting in it being cut-down. While no footage has surfaced of the complete Mamushka, you can hear the full version on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s a prime example of when the movie stops to do something with the Addams, it gets interesting.
And yet when we have the villain come in, it’s not that interesting. She poses as a psychiatrist and tries to convince the family he is the real Fester. On top of that, there’s this “Norman Bates style” motherly relationship she has by trying to maintain a grip of control on him. It’s not that interesting and it’s kind of cliche, because you will know where it were end up. The payoff to her demise is all the more rewarding, but I just felt the villain wasn’t that memorable or posed a huge threat. I just felt Addams Family succeeded more when it just focused on the family.
And rightfully so, as Addams Family Values decided to have more focus on the family giving each one more screen-time and a set of subplots. It was darker, funnier, the villain was livelier and improved so much. But it also fell into the same problems most sequels would do and even some from the first movie as well.
Don’t get me wrong, this is much different from the first Addams Family in plot and tone. However, it shares many similar beats, but thankfully it provides enough different ones to avoid being a complete clone or copy and paste. The family gets a new baby named Pubert, who is to the envy of Wednesday and Puglsey as they try to get rid of the new child. A new nanny is hired, a hilarious performance by Joan Cusack, and she immediately has her sights on Uncle Fester, who also has a huge puppy love crush on her. However, it turns out the nanny is really a serial killer named the “Black Widower” that kills her husbands just for their money. Her focus is on Fester’s cash, as opposed to his awkward romance, and plans to kill him off in order to get a share of the Addams fortune.
Yeah, haven’t we been here before? Someone is after the Addams fortune and is using Fester as a prawn to somehow get it. First off, is there another interesting story line to go by? The plot thread with the new baby is interesting, but it’s put aside for Fester to take center stage again. Second, why do these movies have plots centered around Uncle Fester? Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware he’s a popular character, but why not let another Addams take the spotlight. When you boil it down, both movies are really revolving around Uncle Fester. Everything that happens is because of Uncle Fester. And while I really love Christopher Lloyd as the bald-headed and electricity loving kook, I would have appreciated to see more of the family involved. Couldn’t Lurch do something like become a singing celebrity for teens, Cousin Itt losing his hair or Grandmama Addams getting arrested for fortune telling? (Fun fact: Those two storylines are real episodes from the 1964 series)
While this may sound a little contradicting, the second movie does allow more for the family to do, but only when they are given the chance. Wednesday and Puglsey get more screen time as they get sent away to a summer camp so bight and chipper that makes you want to puke. It gives the two kids more to do as they have different mindsets compared to the more bubbly and air-headed kids attending. I won’t go too in-depth with this subplot, but I will say it does lead to one belly laugh of a payoff. And with Peter McNicol and Christine Baranski playing the harsh, but always happy faced camp counselors, you will love what kind of a “just desserts” payback they get.
Another improvement is just how darker the humor gets. While the first movie trends the campy nature of the TV series, one can compare the sequel more with the Addams cartoon. The jokes are more macabre from the children trying to kill off the newborn, through a Wilie E Coyote and Road-Runner set up, to a prostitute accidentally baked in a bachelor’s party cake. Again, these jokes are handled in a very light way without pushing the envelope. It might get some sensitive viewers bothered, but it’s not overkill.
Joan Cusack is definitely a lot of fun to watch as she goes from sweet and innocent to all out psychotic. It makes it all the more humorous when she has to charm her way to the corpse-looking Fester and seems easier than she planned. It’s clear Cusack is having a blast saving her manic energy for the last act. Thought I do must question why she thinks there is a way to kill an Addams? I mean, isn’t the Addams clan already dead?
Aside from the flaws, you can tell they were trying to make a better movie here. Even director Barry Sonnenfeld seems to have a more comfortable experience, compared to the production stories I heard on the first one. Sadly, Values wasn’t a huge hit at the box-office, but critics did agree it was an improvement in many ways. I do admit, there is much fixed, but I still have some problems with the slight plot rehashing and some family members getting small screen time. But does that mean I hate it? Absolutely not!
Both Addams Family and Addams Family Values are equally entertaining and equally flawed. Again, I can overlook the problems to find a lot to be entertained with. It’s popcorn entertainment, but the good kind. I can forgive a lot of the story problems as everyone is really doing a great job bringing these characters to life and having a good time with it. It’s hard for me to say which is the better one as again they have a slightly similar plot and their own pros/cons. Regardless, I love these two movies and without a doubt give my highest recommendation to see them. If you haven’t had the chance, then stop reading and get watching!