Retro Review: The Addams Family (1991)

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Writers: Charles Addams, Caroline Thompson

Starring: Angelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd

Rated: PG-13

The original Addams Family show first aired in 1964. Decades later, the Halloween favorite still carried enough clout to warrant its own movie, and the 1991 film was born. Posing as Gomez Addams’ long-lost brother fester, Gordon works with his mother Abigail to try to steal the vast riches that lay within the Addams’ family’s secret vault.

The Addams Family reminds me a great deal of The Simpsons. Both are based on aggressive departure from social and media norms and both managed to insert themselves firmly into our cultural consciousness. While The Simpsons did it later on by being bitterly satirical and critiquing society head on, The Addams Family’s made itself memorable by normalizing the macabre and the disturbing. As a kid growing up in the 90s, despite never seeing an episode, I was peppered with references to the show from my peers, a testament to the longevity of the show’s cultural impact.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several swordfights, though only clothes are cut. Wednesday is implied to electrocute her brother via an electric chair and chase him down with a knife and an axe. The school play the children rehearse for and put on involves fake stabbing and (lots of) fake blood. One character is tortured by being stretched on a rack.

Language/Crude Humor: No profanity. A character asks if Girl Scout cookies are made out of real Girl Scouts.

Alcohol/Drug Use: Drinks are served at a party.

Spiritual Content: The Addams hold a seance in an attempt to contact the spirit of their lost brother. The family plays a game called “Raise the Dead” in a cemetery.

Sexual Content: Morticia and Gomez Addams frequently make out aggressively.

Other Negative Content: Things such as death and pain are frequently glorified. By their nature, much of the imagery and themes of the Addams family run counter to traditional Western Christian worldviews.

Positive Content: The family is shown to genuinely care for one another.

Review

While I never had much familiarity with The Addams Family during my childhood, I do know two things: first, I had their snappy theme song stuck in my head for more of my early life than I care to remember; and second, the show’s content was a controversial topic in certain circles. Despite the distaste it left on many palates, the show remained culturally relevant decades after they first hit the air, delighting audiences as they contrasted the family’s traditionally taboo obsessions against their loving and generous nature. In an era of television that had previously been dominated by on-screen depictions of sanitized, traditional nuclear family units, the Addams were the anti-family, openly challenging the conservative norms of the day.

The version of the Addams family that hit the big screen in 1991 features a lackluster story: desperate to pay off his debts, the Addams’ lawyer, Tully (Dan Hedaya), teams up with loan shark Abigail (Elizabeth Wilson) to rob the wealthy Addams family upon realizing that Abigail’s son, Gordon (Christopher Lloyd), almost perfectly resembles Gomez Addams’ long-lost brother Fester. Posing as Fester, Gordon attempts to infiltrate the family vault.

It’s a generic plot that could just as well be in any movie, and what’s particularly disappointing is that nothing unique is done with it. The movie seems content to use the macabre elements that define the Addams family as a backdrop, never really letting these unique features drive the story in any meaningful way. More than that, this backdrop ends up being much more interesting than anything happening in the foreground.

I found myself much more engaged with the everyday lives and dispositions of the characters, while never getting any sense of tension about whether or not the heist would be successful. Perhaps it was only because I was so engrossed in the world, but I often found myself forgetting about the main story almost entirely. In fact, it felt as if the main villains onscreen were meant solely to remind Gordon–and us–that there was actually supposed to be a heist afoot.

If you didn’t come for a compelling plot to reel you in, however, and are just looking to be immersed in the gruesome otherworldliness, there is enough here to satisfy. The mediocre plot playing second fiddle to the individual characters and their world probably works to the film’s advantage, as it is quite fun to simply mess around with the Addams for a while as they playfully electrocute, stab, torture, and adore one another. Watching Gordon find his groove within the Addams household as he works with the kids on their play is a delight and is somehow made all the more heartwarming by their genuine passion for morbidity. I don’t often audibly laugh when I’m alone, but I certainly did when Gordon earnestly asks the children, “Haven’t you ever slaughtered anyone?”

A great deal of credit for this charm has to be given to the actors. Julia and Huston manage to portray a believable and enviable loving relationship that’s also creepy and exaggerated. Their children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), have a strangely admirable disregard for what the world thinks of them that’s portrayed well through their very different character traits. The characters aren’t given much depth, especially the children, but they’re fun enough during their screentime that they never start feeling stale. Visually, the casting for the film is almost eerily well done. When I went back to look at the original show for the purposes of this review, I couldn’t tell most of the 1960s characters apart from their 90s-era counterparts.

For established fans of the Addams franchise, The Addams Family likely won’t offer a great deal of anything new other than being a fine showcase of their dark, wacky ways in a movie format. For newcomers, it’s a reasonable introduction and a chance to embrace the strange charm surrounding the fictional family, but probably won’t satisfy thoroughly as a full film experience. Perhaps this is as it should be. Through their spookiness, kookiness, and altogether ookiness, the death-obsessed Addams family manage to give this otherwise soulless film some life.

Posted in ,

Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

Leave a Reply