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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 live-action feature film adaptation of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoon and later television series The Addams Family was a huge hit for Paramount Pictures. Opening over Thanksgiving weekend, the 38 million dollar production eventually grossed nearly 200 million worldwide, making it a runaway success. Though the film received mixed critical reviews, it was overwhelmingly praised for the performances of Raul Julia, perfectly cast as patriarch Gomez, and Angelica Huston, equally perfect as matriarch Morticia. Huston’s performance earned her a Golden Globes nomination, and Julia’s untimely death at the age of 54 shortly after his two appearances as Gomez made his Addams Family performances even more iconic in retrospect.
Though the Uncle Fester-centric story met with criticism, Christopher Lloyd’s performance also met with acclaim. Equally madcap was Sonnenfeld’s inventive direction. These successful aspects of the film as well its large box office share eventually led to a 1993 sequel, the far superior Addams Family Values. In addition to the excellent returning cast, Addams Family Values also added veteran character actors Christine Baranski, Peter MacNicol, Carol Kane, and Joan Cusack into the fold. Despite the excellence of these supporting players, the three main characters (Fester, Gomez, and Morticia) remain absolute highlights.
Cusack’s character, the villainous nanny/black wide Debbie Jellinsky, puts the plot into motion when she marries (and intends to kill) the grotesque Uncle Fester. Luckily, Fester is unkillable. So Debbie whisks Fester away, demanding he stay as far away from his family as possible so she can bide her time until she can find a way to off him for good and steal his family riches. Meanwhile, Gomez and Morticia must care for their new baby, Pubert, who takes a little too strongly to being an Addams (his mustache and unkillable nature are both always hilarious). Pugsly and Wednesday are stuck at a preppy summer camp, where they must endure the cheery nature of the counselors and the WASP-iness of their fellow campers.
Though I find Addams Family Values highly superior to the first film, it was almost a total failure at the box office. Whereas The Addams Family grossed over a hundred million dollars in domestic theaters, its sequel grossed less than fifty domestically. Despite better writing, more refined performances, a manic performance from Joan Cusack, and an hilarious summer camp musical feature Wednesday as a revenge-seeking Pocahontas, the film was met with a collective shrug from audiences. It didn’t help that the well-reviewed sequel faced stiff competition from Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the biggest hits of 1993. It also faced off against such successful films as The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Three Musketeers.
Addams Family Values is the rare case of a super sequel being outright better than its first and yet completely collapsing at the box office (see also: Gremlins 2: The New Batch). Due to its lack of box office success as well as the sad and untimely death of star Raul Julia, Paramount never commissioned a theatrically released third film in the franchise. Eventually, Tim Curry starred as Gomez in a made-for-television threequel, but no one could have expected that film to compete with the big budgets of the first two films. Julia’s death still stings some twenty years later, as the spirited and talented performer clearly had a whole lot more to give to the silver screen.
It is for that reason that Addams Family Values is truly disappointing. Though it is a well-made and hilarious film, it’s failure at the box office killed the franchise and Julia’s unfortunate death robbed us of another charismatic performance as Gomez. Barry Sonnenfeld went on to bigger success as the director and architect of the highly lucrative Men in Black film franchise, but I still find Addams Family Values to be his biggest success as a director. Madcap set pieces, zany performances, a strong script, and a fantastic villain really anchor the film and make it truly special. Despite its lack of success at the box office, it is a superior film in almost every way to the first and a really great comedy that stands on its own merits.