Embracing the New Normal: ‘The Addams Family’ Is Timeless at 30

The Addams Family Movie Essay - 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld Fillm

Nowadays, most kids’ movies pander to the parents in the crowd with a series of knowing references and adult humor — the kind that goes over the heads of younger viewers but provokes a knowing nod from their guardians. It’s a cynical approach that suggests children are inherently dumb, and therefore need to be condescended to, predominantly with dance sequences and fart jokes. The very best movies, the ones that stand the test of time and are passed down from generation to generation, understand that smart humor and a well-told story will have every member of the audience smiling along, regardless of age. Being kind of rude is fine, but it can’t form the basis of the entire production, and nowhere is this delicate balance more obvious than in The Addams Family.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed family film — equal parts kids’ horror and riotous ensemble piece — hasn’t aged a day since its release. In fact, the jokes have only got funnier in the intervening decades. By situating the action mostly in the Addams compound, where time appears to have stood still, The Addams Family also boasts a timeless quality. There’s an element of magical realism inherent to the Addams’ lifestyle, but the story still feels like it’s set in the real world, as though the characters exist somewhere on the outskirts of society, just out of reach of us normal people. Their wonderful, achingly gothic mansion is the ideal setting for the group’s endearing weirdness to flourish away from prying eyes. Indeed, anyone who ventures inside without being invited is promptly tossed out on their behind (or menaced by the enchanted gates). 

The Addams Family Movie Essay - 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld Fillm

Funnily enough, most festive horror movies now begin with a creepy Christmas carol, but The Addams Family arguably started the trend, at least in modern terms. The defiantly dark tone is established right off the bat as molten tar gets poured on a group of annoying carolers — later, in just one example of the movie’s intricate detailing, the damage is clearly visible on the front-facing walls of the house. No punches are pulled in realizing this vision of a spooky, ooky, kooky family who love each other more than anything and will defend their lifestyle at all costs. In stark contrast, the “normal” characters who feature are miserable, with poor Margaret (Dana Ivey) only finding happiness once she falls in love with Cousin It (John Franklin) and joins the clan herself. Despite the many devilishly dark accoutrements — a black wreath on the door, Granny’s various culinary horrors, the motor-boating cuckoo clock — the message is quite wholesome: love your family and always be true to yourself. 

The Addams are frequently dismissed as idiots, but they’re not stupid — they just have different values to the rest of society. Although Morticia (Anjelica Huston) and Gomez (Raul Julia) exhibit a hilariously unhinged horniness towards each other (to the extent that Pinder-Schloss tells them to “knock it off” at one stage), theirs is a healthy relationship all round — very equal, supportive and loving. If anything, Morticia and Gomez teach kids how important it is to find the right partner and remain committed to that person accordingly. Besides, the Addams might be oddballs, but their values are solid. Wednesday (Christina Ricci), as her teacher tells Morticia, is a great student, and although the girl has shown an interest in the dark arts, her parents make it clear that she needs to complete college first. The movie wouldn’t work if the Addams were cartoonish, so it’s important that they’re grounded in society, with a recognizable attitude to paying their way (the monthly expenses) and supporting the arts (the auction, the kids’ school performance). 

The Addams Family Movie Essay - 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld Fillm

It helps enormously that Ricci and Jimmy Workman, who play Wednesday and Pugsley respectively, are such naturals. There isn’t an ounce of precocious stage kid energy to them, which is particularly impressive considering they’re newcomers and Workman was discovered in the waiting room after accompanying his sister to the initial auditions. The Addams Family is a beacon of hope for weird kids everywhere, since Wednesday and Pugsley are never forced to change who they are to fit in, nor do they care what anyone thinks. It’s evident the Addams family has been persecuted throughout history, which makes their stalwart refusal to bow down to the desires of the sheep-like masses even stronger. The simple yet intriguing central mystery about whether Fester (Christopher Lloyd) is truly an interloper demonstrates how firmly this tight-knit lot clings to their way of life, not because they’re inbred lunatics or staunch conservatives stuck in their ways, but because they’ve fought so hard. 

One could easily write an essay gushing about each character from The Addams Family. This is arguably the greatest ensemble cast ever assembled with Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya and the aforementioned youngsters all delivering captivating, emotionally resonant and frequently very funny performances. Everybody stands out in their own way, with none of the actors stealing focus or hogging the limelight from the others. They’re ably supported by the sharp, witty script which was co-written by Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson. Thompson’s part goes some way towards explaining why Morticia, as the mother, gets more to do than essentially all her contemporaries. Even the way Huston moves in her mermaid-like dress is captivating. The joke hit rate is peerless, with plenty of misdirects scattered throughout, and the attention to detail is truly awe-inspiring. 

The Addams Family Movie Essay - 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld Fillm

The Addams Family is the kind of movie that gets richer and funnier with each subsequent viewing, evidenced by the sophisticated adult humor sitting comfortably alongside goofier stuff (that endless gondola serenade). There’s plenty of background information to catch too, from the stop signs littering Pugsley’s bedroom, which later show up again in the family’s shared motel room, to the stunning production design, which makes the Addams mansion feel messily lived-in and labyrinthine in size. The image of them slumming it in a motel is hilarious because they spend so much of the film’s runtime in their natural environment. Suddenly, Gomez is watching bad daytime television while covered in junk food wrappers and Morticia is perched on a bed trying not to show her discomfort. There’s a richness to how every little detail of the Addams’ world is established before they’re ruthlessly thrown off kilter by Fester’s betrayal, which stings even worse because he’s finally found his place in the world too. 

Lloyd, who’d appeared in Back to the Future: Part III only the previous year, gives an incredibly layered performance as Gordon/Fester. He aggressively eats noodles as the former character, later forlornly throwing a similar meal about the place after being thrown into a depression upon betraying his chosen family. As Sonnenfeld revealed in an oral history of the film, per The Guardian, the cast was initially horrified to learn that Gordon would turn out not to be the real Fester and nominated young Ricci to make a case for why he should be an Addams after all. This move demonstrates just how close they all were, and how much everybody cared about making the story sing. In addition, viewers can feel the characters’ passion seeping out of every gorgeously ugly pore. Such is the indelible power of The Addams Family. The movie organically appeals to adults and children alike because it’s not try-hard or self-conscious like so many modern kids’ movies, including the animated reboot.

The Addams Family Movie Essay - 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld Fillm

There’s a lovely, purposeful rhythm to The Addams Family. Even the score by Marc Shaiman (who worked on the similar-sounding and equally timeless kids’ horror Hocus Pocus) is less formulaic than something Danny Elfman might come up with for a similar project. Romantic and wistful, it complements the swoon-worthy costumes, impeccable production design and, of course, the comfortably spooky atmosphere. The computer animation on Thing stands up reasonably well, too, which is no small feat. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to get swept up in the Addams’ wonderfully weird world. Playful but grown up, tonally consistent throughout — neither too light nor too dark — always joyful and never mean spirited, The Addams Family is the kind of movie that couldn’t be made nowadays because, let’s face it, it’s much too weird. The sheer bravery of allowing these characters to be as spooky, kooky and strange as they are is hugely impressive and impossible to resist. The fact that it all works as well as it does is icing on the messed-up cake. Meanwhile, the sequel is even better, which is virtually unheard of. Such is the power of the indomitable Addams spirit.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.