The Addams Family premiered 25 years ago. Both it and its sequel, Addams Family Values, are strange films. Not because they’re about the Addamses, but because they’re best enjoyed as vignettes — and that aspect actually makes them one of the most faithful movie adaptations out there.
Image: Screenshot from The Addams Family, Paramount
The roots of the Addams Family was never in grand plots or large, overarching ones. It started as a series of single panel cartoons in The New Yorker, followed by the TV show in the ’60s. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that the best parts of the 1991 movie are things that can be taken in isolation.
The “conflict”, such that it is, of the Addamses was always that they had no idea that anything they did was abnormal. They were always presented in contrast to “normal” people who freaked out about the things they did. But the family loved and supported each other. That’s possibly why the plot of The Addams Family movie isn’t really interesting — because it doesn’t have to be.
It has the Addams family lawyer working together with a conwoman to get their hands on the family fortune. (“Outsider trying to get the family’s money” is also the plot of the sequel, Addams Family Values.) Their plan is to get the money by inserting themselves into the family by having the conwoman’s son impersonate the missing Uncle Fester (“Outsider manipulates Fester” is also also the plot of the sequel). It turns out the “fake” is really Fester, he reunites with the family and the greedy cons are defeated. None of that is the part that makes the movie fun to watch.
It’s the weirdly perfect casting — Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams, Raúl Juliá as Gomez Addams and Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams in particular — serving up pitch-perfect lines. The best moments aren’t the things moving the plot along, it’s scenes like Morticia visiting Wednesday’s school and seeing her report on her “hero” Aunt Calpurnia:
Morticia: Wednesday’s great-aunt Calpurnia. She was burned as a witch in 1706. They say she danced naked in the town square and enslaved a minister.
Morticia: Oh yes. But don’t worry, we’ve told Wednesday, “College first.”
That, combined with the very earnest concern she displays for the child who wrote about US morning news host Jane Pauley, is great to watch.
There’s another great moment that stands out more than the plot-relevant dialogue happening simultaneously. Morticia is talking about Gomez being troubled, when Wednesday stalks behind her with a knife. “Is that for your brother? I don’t think so,” says Morticia, taking the knife. Then she hands her daughter a giant cleaver.
It’s moments like Wednesday and Pugsley performing gruesome Shakespeare for a stunned audience of parents while the Addamses leap to their feet.
Every detail of the movie is carefully picked out. Every scene in the Addams Mansion shows off how detailed the set is. The costumes are perfect versions of the iconic garb of each character. And the way Morticia is lit with the classic horror strip of light across her eyes is brilliant. The movie even begins with the cast reenacting one of the original comic strips: Pouring boiling oil on the cheery carollers who have shown up at their door.
It should be obvious to everyone from the get-go that The Addams Family is more interested in recreating the feel of the family than in telling a compelling story. The movie’s plot is just the frame they have hung these vignettes on.
Even though this is the anniversary of the original Addams Family movie, I’d be remiss if, this week, I didn’t point out that the sequel, Addams Family Values has a truly perfect Thanksgiving scene. It’s also the best scene in the whole movie and, like the first movie, is only tangentially related to the “main” plot. It’s so good you’ll ignore the fact that it makes no sense for a summer camp to be doing a Thanksgiving play, when the holiday is in autumn in the US:
And these scenes are the reason I will watch both movies every time I see them come on. The Addams Family movie may be 25 years old, but it’s as good as its ever been.