There’s something wispy and ethereal about the most recent and first animated cinematic outing of the Addams Family. Like a shadow slipping over the franchise, it flickers and dances but never truly solidifies. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t amuse and entertain while it’s there, but it’s light nature threatens to make it evaporate once the house lights come back on.
Gomez and Morticia Addams (Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron) live in an asylum-turned-mansion with their children, Wednesday (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). When the fog surrounding their home lifts, they discover that a planned community called Assimilation has taken root nearby, organized by TV home improvement guru Margaux Needler (Allison Janney). When the Addams’ macabre sensibilities clash with Margaux’s pre-fab pastel plans for a suburban utopia, she makes plans to drive the Addams out of their family home.
There isn’t much story to the film than that. The Addams are bizarre and revel in the grotesque but are a loving family and genuinely civil people. Margaux is the epitome of corporate, branded homogeneity, and her affability and warmth are a complete front. A series of escalating conflicts ensues before things are all wrapped up. End credits. Snap fingers.
The film really feels like a series of Charles Addams’ original comic strips strung together with a thin plot. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. The gothic, deadpan humor that made the Addamses the cultural touchstone they are today is here in abundance. There are countless moments of genuine humor, plenty of great one-liners, and sight gags in nearly every scene. There just isn’t much of a story, theme, or narrative beyond “It’s OK to let people be who they are.” To the film’s credit, it seems to be fully aware of this and doesn’t seem to care much. Some of the time, anyway.
What makes that approach more frustrating than refreshing, though, is the fact that the themes that are here are delivered with all the subtlety of a rusty guillotine. On the Addams’ first trip to Assimilation, they run into a squad made up of demographically-diverse teens doing a routine to a peppy pop song about how great it is to be like everybody else. It works, but it’s so on the nose and over-the-top that it speeds right on past the point of parody and into absurdity. Any laughs it generates come not from the moment itself but from the audience watching someone who thinks they’re way more clever than they actually are.
The film’s approach works tremendously better when it’s playing off the Addams’ natural strengths as characters and as a family. The Addams have always been secure in their macabre identity and bearing. The crux of the franchise’s appeal has been in seeing a family of proud “freaks” calmly interacting with the wigged-out “normals,” even if those normals are the audience itself. It’s elevating the outcast to featured player, the misfit to hero. Some of the best moments come from watching the Addamses go about their daily routine in their mansion, reveling in the bizarro world version of suburban domesticity that was essential to their origin.
And speaking of that, the fact that the characters have been explicitly designed to resemble their original print incarnations is one of the film’s best features. In many ways, it comes off like the Peanuts animated feature of 2015, with the animation appearing to be the 3D version of the original art come to life. Unlike the glammed-up appearances of the family in the iconic live-action films, the Addamses here are various shades of creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky. Morticia’s exaggerated hourglass takes on an unsettling aura, while Fester’s body-made-wrong build is both humorous and off-putting at once. Even Margaux’s Hartman hips and country-diva-on-steroids hair have a bit of a sinister exaggeration to them.
There’s almost nothing to complain about when it comes to the film’s visuals, in fact, and it similarly has a remarkably impressive voice cast that by and large disappear into their characters, making them alive and appealing. Oscar Isaac is a perfect Gomez, echoing both John Astin and Raul Julia but making the role his own. Charlize Theron matches Isaac’s dedication, handling Morticia’s highly-controlled, spooky-sexy voice with black, velvet precision. In a similar way, Chloe Grace-Moretz’s subdued take on Wednesday is intentionally monochromatic but allows her a surprisingly wide range of very subtle emotional shading.
Allison Janney, on the other hand, does sound a bit like she’s on auto-pilot. This is a character type she’s played before, to the point where it seems like Margaux may have been written just for her. But that’s still entertaining enough, and Janney is a welcome presence in anything, so it’s easy to overlook. On the Addams’ side, Bette Midler’s take on Grandmama always sounds like Bette Midler doing an accent, but again, it’s Bette Midler, and she’s awesome. And what about casting Snoop Dogg as Cousin Itt? I’m already sold.
The opening scenes of the film showcase Morticia’s daily routine, scored to a smoldering, seductive jazz number by Christina Aguilera. Its energy is captivating, leaning hard into the creepier aspects of the Addamses but framing it in an appealing and inviting context. Like we’re just a fly on the wall watching a woman get ready for her day. If the entire film had taken that kind of approach, which was probably best exemplified in the classic 90s films and of course in the original comic strips, this animated adventure of the Addamses would have been an instant hit.
But then the filmmakers had to go and make it about something. Every time the film cuts away from the ultimate Halloween party that is the Addams’ lives and tries to advance its emaciated plot, the energy gets blunted and dulled. While this Addams Family reunion is still highly entertaining and full of humorous treats, it’s not nearly as scary good as it should have been, but at least at 86 minutes, it never wears out its welcome. Like the Addamses themselves, the film comes off as genuinely well-meaning but more than a little…off. Still, even a brief visit from the Addamses is better than no visit at all.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-