It’s a banner week at the multiplex for projects that have spent decades in development: Alongside Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, whose first draft hit Tony Scott’s desk a few months before Bill Clinton’s impeachment began, The Addams Family are making their way back to cinemas in a new animated movie directed by animation vets Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan. There’s been a rough amount of consternation about the film’s look, which inspired some measure of backlash from Addams fans thanks to its… well, unique aesthetic, and its apparently Gen Z-focused humor. While not as dire as some might have hoped, this latest iteration of the classic family leaves quite a bit to be desired, and even a really solid voice-cast can’t quite overcome the perfunctory nature of this revival.
Forced out of their old homeland some 13 years earlier by angry torch-wielding townspeople, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia Addams (Charlize Theron) have settled into a comfortable life in their haunted New Jersey mansion. They’ve had two children in the interim — the precocious and monotone Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the excitable explosive expert Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) — and found both a cobbled-together butler, Lurch (Vernon), and a collection of pets, including a lion and the disembodied hand known as the Thing. Officially, the film’s plot is about the family squaring off against Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) a HGTV-styled house-flipper who wants to renovate the Addams’ home so that she can sell an entire neighborhood of lookalike houses to rubes, but really it’s more like three or four cobbled-together sitcom plot-lines placed together, often which rarely intersect. Gomez wants Pugsley to prepare for his ascent into manhood via the Addams’ equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah before the relatives — including Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll, easily the weakest link in an otherwise solid voice cast) and Grandmama (Bette Middler) — come to town, while Wednesday feels the pressures of conformity as she’s sent to middle school with Needler’s bullied daughter (Elsie Fisher).
However, before one can even sink their teeth into what meager meat is on the bone here, one must get past the atrocious animation, which feels better suited for an afternoon block on Cartoon Network sandwiched between flash-animated shows like Johnny Test. Those initial fears about the film’s look were, in truth, completely correct, and the duo behind Sausage Party — surprise, surprise — make this look cheap and ugly, and their attempts at preserving Addams’ style are a bit of a distraction from how bland and lifeless everything looks. The house that the family inhabits looks generic and empty, oddly free of any real stylization, and the same goes for the empty, lifeless digital landscapes of the suburban town beneath their home. The streets are free of people, aside from the same five or six background extras clad in day-glo pastels, and though this may be part of the point, it speaks to some element of boredom on the part of the creators. There are often moments when you can’t tell the townspeople apart, even though the film expects you too, and there are times where the Addams clan comes dangerously close to disappearing into that landscape as well.
Provided you can get past the animation, there’s a decent enough script holding this endeavor together, and it’s fun enough to hear actors like Isaac and Theron take to the material with gusto. Given the advertising, one might have expected the film to be a barrage of current-day memes and pop culture references, and while they do exist, it’s mostly the stuff glimpsed in the trailer — i.e., “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Pennywise jokes, et cetera — and the reasonable successes of the pun-heavy humor proves that the show’s formulaic humor still works well enough for a chuckle. There’s even a relatively coherent attempt at a theme — about how neighborhood conformity is upheld by the powerful wanting to maintain their status and wealth at the expense of individual social freedoms — but there’s only so much that one can do with a preachy “be yourself” message through the thorough application of studio-owned intellectual property. And, as befitting an era in which anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, Tiernan and Vernon at least have their hearts in the right place in repositioning Gomez and Morticia as immigrant parents struggling with their adopted society and with their own children’s assimilation into a foreign culture, even if it never totally gels together into anything meaningful or affecting.
But still, even a perfectly-pitched script wouldn’t have been able to overcome these dire visual circumstances. You shouldn’t be too surprised, though: After all, this is the state of American studio animation at the moment, and it’s not like Tiernan and Vernon really want to do anything particularly innovative. Either you’re funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into making water and sand look lifelike — a pyrrhic feat when your headquarters is less than a half-hour away from the real thing — or you’re churning out bland cookie-cutter garbage straight from the Illumination playbook, doing your best to get in on time and under budget so that the merchandisers can take over. Both are goals that are antithetical to imagination, in which either the real or, perhaps more accurately, the familiar are prioritized by The Powers That Be, assuming the worst of audiences. There isn’t a comfortable middle ground that’s friendly to the artist in this system, and it’s a real bummer to see such a famously stylish series (especially the first two live-action films) like The Addams Family put under the thumb of this dumpy, cheap aesthetic that’s dominating an entire subsection of the cinema.