By SHAWN and RUTH ISABEL MACOMBER
Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron and Chloë Grace Moretz
Directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan
Written by Matt Lieberman
In fifth grade, lo those many years ago, I penned a story for a school writing contest detailing—in perhaps too much detail—the arrival of a pint-sized monster at my elementary school and the subsequent turning of the established mini-social order on its (admittedly decapitated) head. It earned me a blood-red runner-up ribbon…and a year’s worth of mandatory weekly visits with the school guidance counselor, who I’m sure still retains far more knowledge of certain mid-era Iron Maiden albums and FRIDAY THE 13TH arcana than he would prefer. (Hey, you have to fill the time with something…)
Which is sort of a meandering way to say, it’s been fascinating and more than a little gratifying, as I raise my own children, to see how fully monsters in children’s entertainment have been transformed from bêtes noire into not just protagonists, but exemplars of restraint and acceptance whose outsiders’ existence holds up a necessary mirror to humanity’s lack thereof. From SUPER MONSTERS to HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA to Disney’s villain-script-flipping DESCENDANTS and ZOMBIES films to MONSTER HIGH and beyond, monsters are in ascendance. And that is a glorious—and, yes, positive—development.
So I wasn’t surprised when my 6-year-old daughter Ruth asked to tag along for a preview screening of the latest iteration of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. “You know you need my help, Dad,” she sighed, already reaching for her furry panda notebook and a pen boasting a fuzzy pink top that would give truffulas from THE LORAX an inferiority complex. “Monsters are really fashionable right now and…well, fashion isn’t really your strong suit.”
Alas, it’s tough to come up with a witty riposte to that charge when your shabby is not-so-chic. Still, I thought this was a first-rate idea, regardless of the hit to my ego: After all, my daughter is, first and foremost, a smart, incisive, discerning, sassy, endlessly curious little pixie with a crackling wit and impeccable taste. And then there’s the undeniable fact that the gulf between what the critic class and an actual, y’know, kid thinks of a given family film is often as wide and profound as the Addamses’ basement bottomless pit.
What follows are thoughts on a few of Ruth’s more trenchant THE ADDAMS FAMILY observations, whispered to me throughout our otherwise empty screening at the beautiful Warner Theater in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and then over tyke-sized hot cocoas afterward.
- “I always kind of wanted monsters to live in our town. But now I really, really want some to move here.”
Elsewhere, ADDAMS FAMILY reviews have been decidedly mixed, but Ruth was ready to recruit an army of Things to provide backup for her two enthusiastic thumbs up. “I thought it might be a little scary,” she said, referencing the trailer, which unfortunately somewhat downplays the actual slapstick “kooky”-ness of the film, “but it’s just so funny and super-cool. It had some of my new favorite monsters ever.”
And these Addamses are definitely monsters: Whereas previous iterations of THE ADDAMS FAMILY essentially followed a proto-goth family possessed by a mordant sense of humor and a taste in décor that ran toward the pitch black, the nearly limitless palette the animated form provides is employed here to great effect, exploring the supernatural aspect of the family’s life on a wildly imaginative, extravagant scale. There is, for example, an Amityville-esque invisible haunting presence that paradoxically endears itself to the family with its disembodied roars of “Get out!” and phantasmic attacks—and, in a sign of mutual appreciation—guards the dilapidated, sinister character of the house from the scourge of swank renovations foisted upon it by neighbors, well-meaning and underhanded alike. (“One big burst of black just makes the colors everywhere else look brighter,” Ruth said in the apparition’s defense when it eradicated a visitor’s experiment in painting the walls pastel pink, her favorite color.) And an extended family member strutting around with horns and a flaming head. And melodious, animated shrunken heads united in a barbershop quartet. And dead in-laws who still butt in with parenting advice. And tens of thousands of spiders that spill out from beneath the sleek dress of Morticia (Charlize Theron) to help the family cross certain obstacles. “We call it surfing the web,” she deadpans. And…well, so much more. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of hellions and beasts.
Further, THE ADDAMS FAMILY is not subtle when it comes to establishing who the real antagonists are: The housing development that threatens the Addamses’ little patch of macabre, through-the-looking-glass paradise is, for example, christened Assimilation, where roving bands of dancing children sing, “What’s so great about being yourself, when you can be just like everyone else?” This neighborhood association is run with an iron fist by the elaborately coiffed Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a sort of cross between an HGTV reality show star and Kim Jong-il, with a surveillance apparatus to match.
The monsters aren’t just due on maple street. They’ve taken over the whole dang neighborhood.
A major bonus for Ruth: When, after escaping a gaggle of torch-and-pitchfork normies early on in the film, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) promises to ferret Morticia away to “somewhere horrible, somewhere corrupt, somewhere nobody in their right mind would ever be caught dead in!” and then passes a sign that reads “Welcome to New Jersey”?
“Oh my God—I can’t believe the Addamses live where we live!” she exclaimed, the two of us simultaneously discovering our vicarious state pride.
- “Be nice to other people or you might not get treated how you want to be treated. Also, zombie frogs might attack you.”
Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz) is inarguably the hero of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and she could not, in truth, be a better role model. Yes, she is sometimes torture her eccentric family—which also includes Pugsley (IT and STRANGER THINGS’ Finn Wolfhard) and Grandma (Bette Midler)—with a shocking panache, but when the chips are down, she’ll always arrive in the nick of time to parry the attacks of…yet another gaggle of torch- and pitchfork-wielding normies. (Not really a spoiler, if we don’t reveal the deliciously unusual manner in which she and Pugsley accomplish it.)
Sure, her humor is a bit acerbic and her gait a bit severe for a junior-high-school student, but she is fiercely loyal to friends and a rousing curse upon the previously uncontested debauchery bullies. (When Wednesday undertakes a Frankenstein-style reanimation of the frogs her class is supposed to dissect, and sics them on the class mean girl, Ruth exclaimed, “I want her in my girl crew!”)
Absolutely, Wednesday marvels at the quirks and modern upper-middle-class accoutrements of those around her as an anthropologist might in the presence of some ancient artifact. Examining the smartphone of her future compatriot Parker (Elsie Fisher of CASTLE ROCK) for the first time, she wonders aloud how the device is able to capture so many more souls than her own haunted compact mirror. Yet her tolerance for difference and diversity is extraordinarily high—to the point of near-superpower, really. Wednesday is an iconoclast who will fight mightily for the underdog, human and monster alike, but her own sole prejudice is against…prejudice. When the dust settles and peace is won—albeit on her terms—she has the integrity and openness to accept every last reformed former opponent for precisely who they are. “Wednesday sticks up for her friends, which I already always do,” Ruth said, “but she also sticks up for people she doesn’t even know, which I’m going to start doing. Tomorrow.”
- “Pugsley is such a little brother. And he’s so cute and crazy and cool. But I really hope he doesn’t give my little brother any ideas.”
Though Ruth found the delightfully feral and mischievous Pugsley to be quite amusing, she did have some concerns, as the quote above indicates, that his love for building and deploying improvised explosive devices of various shapes and sizes might prove a bit too tempting for real-life little brothers. Or maybe it was all situational? When Pugsley sets off a small bathroom charge that lands long-suffering Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) in the living room—bathtub, rubber duckies and all—she did admit, “It might be pretty funny if Casper did that. To you.” (This really brings home the difference in perspective between someone who pays the mortgage on a home and someone who lives there rent-free…)
- “Monsters make good music.”
One aspect my daughter thrilled to—but made me feel about as old and decrepit as the Addams family abode—was the soundtrack. I’m down for the fresh take on the original theme song and the weirdly sweet, hilarious rendition of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” by Lurch (co-director Conrad Vernon). Nostalgia, etc. But the jams courtesy of Christina Aguilera, Migos, Karol G, Rock Mafia and Snoop Dogg—who also voices Cousin It—kind of stranded me in an old-man get-of-my-lawn state of mind. “You just wish it was heavy metal,” Ruth lectured. “I like this better. It reminds me of Katy Perry.”
- “You are you. And you always should be you. If you’re a monster, if you’re a person—no matter what.”
Such was Ruth’s summation of the moral of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. And, indeed, by the end of the film, monsters are now neighbors. Neighbors are now friends. Mutual respect and cultural exchange are the rule rather than the exception. Mistrust is old hat. Boldly drawn borders between the unusual and the…less obviously unusual are blurred. It isn’t custom or appearance that has changed, but hearts.
In my daughter’s little notebook, I found two pages filled from the night of the screening. On one was a small paean to the fashion sense of Morticia and Wednesday. (The boots screwed on the former with a drill made a particular impression, and I think my wife is going to have to figure out how to mimic the noose braids of the latter!) On the other was a sketch of a vampire bat and the words You Are You.
Now you tell me who’s the professional critic.