The new animated film version of “The Addams Family” returns the delightfully macabre family to its original roots: a cartoon.
Long before the TV series with its can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head theme song, the Addams Family began as cartoons in that most erudite of publications, the New Yorker. Charles Addams created the family in 1938 and the cartoons continued there until his death in 1988, as well as in newspapers and Addams’ compilation books.
They weren’t called “The Addams Family” nor were the characters given names until the 1964-66 ABC sitcom starring Carolyn Jones as Morticia, John Astin as Gomez, Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester, Ted Cassidy as Lurch, Lisa Loring as Wednesday and Ken Weatherwax as Pugsley.
Morticia is supposedly based on Addams’ first wife, Barbara Jean Day. But he didn’t base Gomez on himself.
“The bulk of Addams’ oeuvre is not devoted to ‘The Addams Family,’ though he often admitted a slight resemblance to and leaning toward his Uncle Fester chapter,” said H. Kevin Miserocchi, executive director of the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, in an email interview. “Rather, he worked in a reaction to the world around him. Charles Addams was a soft-spoken erudite gentleman with a great love and respect for all creatures, human and otherwise.”
It appears that William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, didn’t have quite the same love or respect for the series. He refused to run any Addams Family cartoons during the run of the show.
Since that time, there have been many “Addams Family” projects, including two animated series — Jodie Foster supplied the voice of Pugsley in the 1973-75 animated show — the 1977 NBC special “Halloween with the New Addams Family,” starring the majority of the original cast; Barry Sonnenfeld’s blockbuster feature comedies, 1991’s “The Addams Family” and 1993’s “Addams Family Values,” starring Anjelica Huston as Morticia and Raul Julia as Gomez; and the 2010 Broadway musical with Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia and Nathan Lane as Gomez.
And now Morticia, Gomez and the family are getting the animated feature treatment in a new comedy opening Friday. The CG animated film has its feet both in the past and the present, including hitting such topical themes as immigration and diversity.
“What we wanted to do with this movie was take it way back to its source with the Charles Addams cartoons,” said Greg Tiernan, who directed the film with Conrad Vernon. The pair previously did “Sausage Party” together. (Tiernan does double duty as the voice of butler Lurch.) “We definitely made a point of the message of the movie, being in this day and age, the theme of inclusivity and being different is not bad at all.”
In a way “The Addams Family” could be considered an immigrant story. Morticia (voiced by Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) are run out of their village by pitchfork-wielding townspeople on their wedding day. But they find happiness in an abandoned insane asylum high on a hill in New Jersey.
They are getting their home ready for an onslaught of their family from all over the world for Pugsley’s “Mazurka” coming-of-age ceremony. But when the fog engulfing the mansion mysterious evaporates, TV rehab superstar Margaux (Allison Janney) is intent on getting rid of family. She is creating a prefabricated city in the flats of the city called Assimilation where everybody lives in the same homes and eschews anyone different. The house on the hill is an eyesore that will ruin her TV special.
The directors didn’t set out to make a political movie — and it isn’t. But “I will say we were cognizant of the parallels [of what’s going on now] while we were making it,” said Tiernan.
“We did want to tell a story that kind of reflected the things that are going on right now,” agreed Vernon. “It was looking at this situation and saying, ‘We can’t go down this road.’ So hopefully people will see that.“
The TV series also explored those themes. “It was a way that a surreal comedy could comment upon the times,” said TV historian Ron Simon of the Paley Center for Media. “You’re seeing the world from their eyes. It’s very much like the ‘Eye of the Beholder’ episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ but you do it as a comedy. I think young people have a better appreciation of the unusual, the strange and the eccentric when you begin to see the world through the Addams Family’s eyes.”
Charles Addams was involved in the original TV series. “Having been approached to do a variety of television programs and plays ... Charles Addams agreed to pursue a television series when he met David Levy in 1962 because their ideas meshed,” said Miserocchi. “Levy then approached Filmways Television and created the series with the initial help from Addams.”
The foundation, which was created in 2000, was a consultant on the 2010 Broadway musical, as well as this new animated feature.
Animation historian Jerry Beck bought Addams’ book collections because of the original TV series. “They were hilarious,” he said of the comics. “I loved them. I loved the artwork and I loved what was going on. It was subversive. For me it was very Mad magazine.”
Beck was thrilled to see they have gone back to the original artwork for the new film. “They’ve tweaked it and pushed it,” he said. “It couldn’t have come back at a better time. They used to say ‘The Addams Family’ [series] was ahead of its time, and I think as much as ‘Addams Family’ has been in pop culture and in the media throughout the years, I think the time is right now.“
He noted that “we’re now living in a world that’s more interested in the dark side of stuff. ... We have a culture now that embraces the subversive side, so it’s a perfect time for ‘The Addams Family’ to return to the screen.”
Still, the filmmakers are aware that kids may not have met the Addams Family before.
“That was one of our challenges,” said Tiernan. “We had to walk that fine line of reintroducing the characters to people, especially youngsters, who might not be familiar with them and then not flog a dead horse with trying to over-explain, ‘This is who Fester is. This is who Itt is. This is who Thing is.’ Because there are many, many Addams fans that know who their favorite characters are.”
But fans who grew up watching the series and the movies may be surprised at Gomez’ appearance. Not only does he resemble Addams’ original vision of him as short and squat, he also has moves like the Great One himself, Jackie Gleason.
“Anytime you are working with a new bunch of animators who are trying to get inside the heads of the directors to see how we want these characters to act and move, we totally pitched Jackie Gleason,” said Tiernan.
“Jackie Gleason, apart from being a hilarious comic, was also an incredibly gifted dancer and graceful. We didn’t want the animators to necessarily say, ‘OK, this is sort of a slovenly, schlubby type of character.’ This guy moves with the grace of a cat.”