The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.

4 comments on “The Addams Family

  1. sftrails says:

    Absolutely. The original TV show just cracks me up. Lurch is hilarious. I was disappointed with the second “modern” film, Addams Family Values.” but liked the first one. There was a book I once had, but it got away from me in my many movies during the 80’s that had a lot of reprints of the Addams cartoons. And don’t forget the Flintstones episode with them. And don’t forget the theme song.

    So, in the hospital one of the physical therapists was talking about going to a Halloween Party. I thought she’d be a great Mortticia, but she was having doubts. Well, I told her she was a little old to be Wednesday. Then I started singing the theme song and snapping my fingers. She seemed surprised I knew so much about the Addams Family. Unlike you, buckeroo, I saw the original episodes circa 1964.

    • I agree, Addams Family Values isn’t as good as the 1991 Addams Family, which was a shame. Of the various cartoon adaptations I’ve seen, my favorite is Scooby-Doo meets the Addams Family, which featured a lot of the original actors doing voice work and the family was drawn very much in the Addams style. The 1992 cartoon series that followed the movie isn’t bad. It’s a bit safe, but John Astin is back as Gomez and Carol Channing plays Grandmama. They aren’t at the top of the Addams adaptations, but it’s worth finding an episode or two on YouTube. Good to hear you’re spreading the good word about the Addams Family, even when you were feeling low.

  2. I haven’t seen the new animated film, but have seen and enjoyed most versions of The Addams Family.

    I think Hollywood playing it safe reflects a few things. One is simply money–according to Wikipedia, the film’s budget was $40 million. While that’s not a great deal in modern day movie making terms, it’s still considerable. Hollywood typically needs to appeal to a mass audience to make a profit, and even then not infrequently loses money on a film.

    Another is the genre and the era. Having children brought home in animal carriers might have been a good laugh in a single panel cartoon in “The New Yorker” at the time. But showing that in a modern day movie would likely bring out cries of moral outrage for making a joke out of child abuse.

    Frankly, though, many kids might not see it that way. When I worked in animal care, one of our main groomers had a young grandson and granddaughter who loved getting in an animal carrier and “locking” themselves in.

    • Pretty much everything you say is the standard answer for why Hollywood plays it ultra safe on anything that could be remotely construed as a kids’ show and there’s certainly truth there. The thing is a clever writer can write something that will appeal to both adults and kids and not scare investors. The problem is, producers and film critics rarely value those clever writers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.