The enduring appeal of “The Addams Family” is quite impressive. With only four notes and a couple of snaps, plus a classic black dress, one can instantly evoke the classic American Gothic clan, who are creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky.
Since Morticia’s 1938 debut on the pages of the New Yorker, in a cartoon drawn by Charles Addams, the unusual family has appeared in virtually every possible format: a 1960s TV series (thanks to that catchy theme song by Vic Mizzy), two animated series, two wildly popular 1990s feature films, a Broadway musical, video games and now, an animated feature directed by “Sausage Party” helmers Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, and written by Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler and Erica Rivinoja.
Former New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff said in a 2010 interview that Addams’ work “delighted in turning upside down our assumptions about normality and its relationship to good and evil.” That is the underlying thesis of this “Addams Family,” which isn’t a new take so much as a deeply faithful rendering of Addams’ cartoons, in style and content. The animated figures hew closely to Addams’ cartoons, imparted in the dry, deadpan, punny wordplay integral to the Addams appeal.
This is all par for the Addams course, so what new territory can be wrought here? There are some supernatural liberties that can be taken, for sure, in this computer animated format, but the core beliefs are in place. The Addamses might look, talk and act darker and weirder than most, but what makes them the weirdest is they’re a loving, tight-knit family. Oscar Isaac’s Gomez is smitten with his wasp-waisted wife, Morticia (Charlize Theron), and both are invested in their children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard), and their extended families.
There are some good gags about Wednesday’s unique methods of rebellion, and Nick Kroll brings an inspired vocal performance to Uncle Fester. But the real inventiveness of the film lies in its villain, a perfectly perky home and garden TV host, Margaux (Allison Janney), who has set her sights (and profit margins) on gentrifying the Addams’ neck of New Jersey. She’s built a new suburban development called “Assimilation” in the foothills below the Addams’ abandoned insane asylum-turned-mansion and intends to sell all the homes while achieving massive TV ratings success.
With her blond bouffant, Margaux is somewhat of a riff on Joan Cusack’s psychotic interloper Debbie, the villain from the 1993 feature film “Addams Family Values.” But Margaux is hilariously topical, as she whips up a frenzied pastel mob wielding digital torches on the internet forum Neighborhood Peeps. The question comes down to: Just who is normal anyway? No one, really, and that’s always been the appeal of “The Addams Family” over its many decades, allowing an outlet for our collective dark side and finding the humor in all things macabre.
The appeal of this “Addams Family,” which doesn’t break the mold, is simply to spend some more time in this gently spooky world, a gateway for budding creepsters and goths. It’s refreshing that it doesn’t try to overreach the limitations of its story, but it’s so slight, it merely whets the appetite for more Addams fare, rather than providing anything truly satisfying.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 11, in general release