The macabre cartoons of Charles Addams began appearing in The New Yorker in the 1930s, and continued in the pages of the magazine for the next 50 years, offering cheerfully morbid single-panel gags about murder, monsters, and magical curses. Decapitations were a favorite subject, as was a gothic bunch that came to be known simply as the Addams Family, after their creator. They played with crossbows, poured hot oil on carolers, guillotined dolls, stole stop signs, and loved gloomy weather. It wasn’t until making the move to TV in 1964 that they acquired names, personalities, and a catchy finger-snapping theme song (“They’re creepy and they’re kooky / mysterious and spooky,” and so on), not to mention a family of rivals in the dull, suburban Munsters. There were animated series, Scooby-Doo crossovers, and TV specials, but the definitive interpretations, by consensus, are the likable and funny 1991 Addams Family movie and its sequel, Addams Family Values, both of which benefitted from excellent casting and a good dose of the grotesque.
Which brings us to The Addams Family 2, the largely listless follow-up to the forgettable Addams Family animated film that came out two years ago. As always, we have the Addamses: amorous parents Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron); children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton); dim-witted, roly-poly Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll); giant, creepy butler Lurch (co-director Conrad Vernon); and batty Grandmama (Bette Midler). The character designs are ugly (Wednesday, for one, has an eggplant-shaped head) and the animation is mostly uninspired, but the basic idea of the Addamses—that they are, in fact, a more loving and well-adjusted family than the average American household—is there. What’s missing, among other things, is the dark humor that is the Addams family’s whole raison d’être.
Instead, the characters breakdance, lip sync to pop songs, and generally do the kinds of things that characters do in generic, mass-produced family films. A good example of missed opportunities is the premise, which finds the Addamses going on a family-bonding vacation. With the disembodied hand known only as Thing at the wheel, they load up an oversized steampunk hearse of an RV and head off on a cross-country road trip. This is in itself a decent idea; America is nothing if not a nation of weird tourist traps, and it’s easy to imagine the Addamses feeling right at home in the Winchester Mystery House, the Mütter Museum, or the House On The Rock. Addams Family 2, however, sends them off to visit Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. The result looks even duller than it sounds. (The more cynical might conclude that these kinds of brightly lit, oversized environments are probably a lot cheaper to model and animate.)
The messy sitcom plotting awkwardly juggles an assortment of B- and C-plots. Brainy Wednesday, reimagined as a less-fun Lisa Simpson, suspects that she’s adopted; Pugsley tries to impress girls; Grandmama, left to her own devices, hosts a raucous party at the mansion. There’s a Silicon Valley tech wizard named Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader) in the mix, and a tremendous amount of filler, mostly in the form of musical numbers and montages, involving both overplayed oldies (“Jump Around,” “I Will Survive”) and original pop-rap that no one would listen to of their own free will. That leaves most of the ghoulish antics to Uncle Fester, the only character that anyone seems to have had any fun animating; pumped with octopus genes by Wednesday for a science fair project, he spends most of the movie transforming into a tentacled monstrosity.
These occasional injections of kid-friendly body-horror slapstick only serve to highlight the laziness of the rest of the movie—no one actually says, “Well, that just happened,” but considering the quality of the writing, they might as well. Given that we live in an age of franchise hyperinflation, there is, of course, more Addams Family content in the pipeline; Netflix is reportedly readying a show that will cast Wednesday as some kind of teen psychic detective, with Tim Burton directing. The prospect of latter-day Burton in Dark Shadows mode may not sound too promising, but it’ll probably be better than the Cousin Itt origin story or dark Lurch reboot we’ll be getting in two or three years.