The Addams Family (1991)
Written by Caroline Thompson & Larry Wilson
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Few television-to-film adaptations are as good as the first two Addams Family movies. I didn’t realize it until recently, but The Addams Family television series only ran for two seasons, with an impressive 64 episodes total. In syndicated reruns, the series would gain a cult fanbase that kept it in the cultural spotlight. Beyond the theme song and encounters with “normals,” the film’s tone is not based on the television show. Instead, the filmmakers drew inspiration from the original New Yorker comics by Charles Addams. This was the correct decision, and the result is studio comedy that sits in the perfect middle ground between crowd pleaser and dark humor. It’s also a strange case where the sequel is arguably better than the original film.
It has been 25 years since Fester Addams went missing following a falling out with his brother Gomez (Raul Julia). Gomez’s lawyer Tully (Dan Hedaya), is desperate for money as he owes loan shark Abigail Craven (Elizabeth Wilson) but notes her adopted son, Gordon (Christopher Lloyd), looks exactly like the missing Fester. They concoct a plan to have Gordon present himself as the lost Addams, gain the family’s trust, and discover the secret of the vault so they can swipe the Addams’ fortune. As Gordon gets to know the family members better, he finds a bond is growing. Craven, posing as psychologist Dr. Pinder-Schloss, also makes herself a regular guest to try and get between Gordon and his new family. The children, Little Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsly (Jimmy Workman), uncover the truth.
This film is a case of the plot taking second place to some of the best character work in a movie of the era. Each Addams is given just the right amount of development so that we are sad to say goodbye when the end credits roll. The film works best when it’s delivering bite-size vignettes, often loosely tied to the main storyline of Gordon posing as Fester. The script initially had Gordon choose to stay and pretend to be Fester, but the cast reportedly hated this and chose Christina Ricci to tell the director to change it. I think that was the best choice and gives a perfect endnote to the picture.
Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) showcase some of the best chemistry and put so many modern romances to shame. It’s certainly a strength that Raul Julia and Huston are fantastic actors who came to the table with a lot of experience. From the first time we see them on camera, we’re won over and love every minute spent between them. I love the personality contrast of Morticia always being stoic & calm while Gomez is passionate but also prone to bouts of depression. Like their television counterparts, all the characters seem oblivious to how their lifestyle is outside the norms of their world.
There’s been bizarre fan speculation that Tim Burton secretly directed these films, but that only makes sense if you have zero familiarity with the work of Barry Sonnenfeld. Before his directorial debut with The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld served as the cinematographer on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Misery, and Throw Momma From the Train, just to name a few. After seeing those movies, you immediately recognize Sonnefeld’s distinct directorial style. The camera’s behavior is reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s sudden rocketing across a landscape for comic effect, in extreme close-ups of characters to emphasize mental instability. In my opinion, Burton has never had a very dynamic camera, so there is no doubt that this movie is Sonnefeld’s. However, people are correct that the aesthetic is clearly derived from Burton’s prior work.
I can see some audiences not connecting with the movie because of its episodic nature. Many scenes play out like live-action versions of the New Yorker comics, with a single line as the centerpiece. An excellent example of this occurs when The Addams family are evicted from their home. Wednesday & Pugsly are selling lemonade to help make some side money. A girl scout approaches and asks if their lemonade is made with real lemons. Annoyed, Wednesday asks if her cookies are “made of real girl scouts.” It’s a funny bit but could also exist as a bite-size bit separate from the film. As a result, the picture is the sort of light fare I enjoy. What binds it all together is the perfect casting and the strong performances from everyone involved. I would argue that Elizabeth Wilson as Abigail Craven is a shamefully ignored performance in the film even by its fans. She is genuinely hilarious in every scene she appears in.