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Dir: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon. Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Javon "Wanna" Walton, and Bette Midler. PG cert, 87 mins.
For a franchise that feels like it’s been begrudgingly forced to exist, we could do a lot worse than The Addams Family 2. It may be a heavily commercialised, diet-goth take on Charles Addams’s single-panel cartoons, first published in The New Yorker in 1938, but it’s stayed faithful where it matters most – in the way that only a clan of ghoulies as way-out as the Addamses can highlight the true peculiarities of their own rituals and habits. What we think of as “normal” can seem very bizarre indeed when viewed from the outside.
Granted, directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s return to the material isn’t quite as sharp as its predecessor, which dug its claws surprisingly deep into the topics of gentrification and immigration. Here, our vehicle for spooky hijinks is something a little more conventional – an Addams Family take on National Lampoon's Vacation, as the characters hop into a velvet-bedecked camper van and shoot off on a cross-country trip. Obligatory stops include Salem and California’s Death Valley. And the lesson of the day becomes “the meaning of family”, after the eldest sprog, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz), starts to question whether someone with an intellect as sharp as hers could possibly share DNA with the sword-brandishing, pyromaniacal buffoons she shares a home with. Her doubts are soon amplified by the arrival of a rather persistent lawyer (Wallace Shawn) who insists that the real child of Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) was switched at birth. Is Wednesday an impostor?
Though it’s a storyline usually more at home in the world of TV soap operas and exploitative talk shows, The Addams Family 2 adds its own ooky, spooky flavour thanks to a dose of inspiration from HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. And there’s still plenty of opportunity for satire, including a sequence where Wednesday is roped into a child pageant – bouncing curls, tutus, and all – while the other Addamses try to pass themselves off as Texan oil barons.
It seems like a missed opportunity not to have Isaac star in his own live-action Addams Family, considering how wonderfully he captures Gomez’s paternal instincts and romantic inclinations while also being the rare kind of man who can pull off a pencil moustache. But he’s well-matched by Theron’s Morticia and Moretz’s Wednesday, who both have a firm handle on the slow, Gothic drawl.
The characters certainly look like they’re meant to, having been faithfully copied over from Charles Addams’s original designs. They sound like they’re meant to, with Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score recycling the finger-snapping theme of the Sixties television series. And they even act like they’re meant to, with lashings of morbid humour that’s bound to muster a little nostalgia from fans of the live-action Nineties films – check out a beachside Wednesday carefully constructing a sand guillotine for her brother Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton, replacing Finn Wolfhard).
But these animated outings will always feel like a flash in the pan if they continue to rely on contemporary nods as a source of cheap humour. Some of the references are already, almost instantaneously, outdated – Gomez comments, “Tell that Billie Eilish she’s a little too sunny for my taste,” mere months after she ditched the dark tresses for a blond bombshell look. Wednesday quips that she’s “been social distancing since birth” despite there being no indication that the film takes place during the pandemic. And Snoop Dogg has, inexplicably, decided to return as the hairpiece-on-legs known as Cousin Itt. The macabre never goes out of style, so there’s no reason the Addams Family should either.