The second animated Addams Family movie has big shoes to fill — but they aren’t the shoes of its middling 2019 predecessor. The target audience won’t remember this, because they likely weren’t born at the time. But in 1991, when the Addams Family first moved past their comics origins and subsequent 1960s TV show and into a feature film, it was a smash hit, swiftly followed by a sequel. 1993’s Addams Family Values didn’t do nearly as well as the first movie, but it provided a model for that great rarity, the exceptional comedy sequel. The second live-action Addams Family is shorter, smarter, and all-around funnier than the first movie, and it particularly deepens the character of Wednesday Addams, played by a young Christina Ricci.
In fact, Addams Family Values is probably a major reason that so much Addams Family material since then has focused on Wednesday. On the old TV show, she wasn’t much more than an amusingly dour child novelty act. But she’s since become the center of an ill-fated Broadway adaptation, a popular web series booted off YouTube over copyright issues, an upcoming Tim Burton-directed Netflix series, and now the animated movies, where she’s voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz. But by zeroing in on the eldest Addams child, the new Addams Family 2 exposes just how clunky and wrongheaded its take on Wednesday is — and what the animated movies get wrong about the family in general.
Like Addams Family Values, Addams Family 2 makes the smart decision to remove the Addamses from their natural habitat. Leaving their creaky mansion makes for less eye-popping art direction, but stronger story potential. While the earlier sequel sent Wednesday and Pugsley off to an upbeat summer camp and placed Uncle Fester into a loveless marriage with a perky gold-digger (“Pastels?” Morticia asks with quietly withering disdain while examining his new home), the new film sends them on a cross-country vacation.
Gomez (Oscar Isaac, MVP of the voice cast) is convinced that Wednesday is drifting away from the family, though why he thinks that, given Wednesday’s trademark icy demeanor, isn’t adequately explained. Rather than giving her space, he decides he can bring her back into the fold with a close-quarters RV trip. (That’s remarkably close to the central dynamic in Netflix’s recent animated movie The Mitchells Vs. the Machines.) Still, dicey motivations aside, this is a fine framework for an Addams Family movie: Pit them against all sorts of all-American and decidedly non-gothic hot spots, and force them to interact with more traditional tourists. Sounds like fun.
Some bits and pieces of the movie do follow through on this promise. Gomez enthuses over the grim prospect of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and despairs that they don’t sell barrels on site — he has to buy “300 pickles” to obtain them for his family. Pugsley wreaks havoc at the Grand Canyon, attempting to improve on the majesty of nature with explosives. But even those moments don’t really reflect the Addams’ ghoulish sensibilities. Filmmakers Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon just reimagine them as generators of all-purpose zaniness. The naïve faith in their own macabre tastes is entirely missing here.
That’s especially true of Wednesday. Addams Family 2 opens on her competing in the school science fair with an elaborate attempt to infuse her dimwitted Uncle Fester with the intelligence of an octopus. (It fuels one of the movie’s few appropriately gruesome running threads, where Fester starts mutating into a tentacled creature.) The mad-science angle makes sense, but Addams 2 keeps pushing Wednesday as a kind of haughty genius who barely tolerates the inferior intellects surrounding her, while feeling constrained by her position as a tween girl. So basically, she’s reconfigured into Stewie from Family Guy.
Could this take on Wednesday work? Maybe, sort of, with the right degree of deadpan morbidity. In this movie, though, it actually waters her down. After all, there’s no shortage of megalomaniacal and/or smart-mouthed cartoon characters, especially children. Addams Family Values draws a sharp, funny line between Wednesday’s antisocial tendencies and the punishing hegemony of so many childhood activities: Her resistance to summer-camp cheer (and a whitewashed play about the first Thanksgiving) aligns her with other misfits.
In Addams Family 2, both the characterization and Moretz’s vocal performance have a hollow ring of bland quasi-relatability. Her discomfort with traditional affection feels like shtick, where Ricci made it a crucial element of her being. Though Pugsley is less central to the narrative, he also gets sanded down into normal kid antics. Here, he has a subplot where he tries to learn how to impress girls, and somehow his lack of appeal to them isn’t linked to his ghoulish tendencies, so much as him being kind of a dork.
All this business underlines just how skillfully portrayed the Addams clan was in those 1990s live-action movies, and how deceptively difficult it can be to bring them back to life, even in the seemingly ideal medium of animation. Oscar Isaac has a handle on Gomez’s daft ringleading, and Charlize Theron has the right vocal tone for Morticia. But the characters don’t cohere as a family unit. The movie’s idea of juxtaposing the creepy and the kooky is to have Lurch, the subverbal butler who resembles Frankenstein’s monster, unexpectedly break into a high-pitched rendition of “I Will Survive.” Rather than figuring out how to survive in the “normal” world as their inimitable selves, the movie bends the Addams characters into just another batch of lovable anything-goes cartoon characters.
Of course, adult fans who fondly recall Addams Family Values aren’t the target audience for Addams Family 2. (Full disclosure: My 5-year-old daughter thoroughly enjoyed it.) But plenty of kids saw and enjoyed the live-action movies in their day, and the Hotel Transylvania movies already exist, full of friendly monsters and livelier animation. So why make a series of Addams Family cartoons that echo other existing franchises, and that don’t seem to understand this clan or what’s funny about them? Addams Family 2 feels like the ultimate revenge of those maddeningly cheerful camp counselors from Addams Family Values: Finally, the Addams’ adventures are reimagined as too-cute mandatory fun.