Addams Family Values probably wouldn't be made nowadays. In the current climate, comedies are so unbelievably self-conscious – signposting jokes before they happen, while they're happening, and then again after they've happened (did you catch that joke we just made? It was hilarious!) – and loaded to breaking point with pop culture references that go stale while they’re happening it's hard to imagine anybody trusting this movie to be as purely, gloriously funny as it is.
Twenty-five years later, Addams Family Values seemingly hasn't aged a day. Its only possible giveaway to the time period in which it was made sees Airplane!'s Peter Graves in a goofy cameo as the host of a nineties-era show about America's most deadly female serial killers. Given how the true crime genre has mutated in subsequent years, it doesn't jar in the way that maybe Sally Jessy Raphael's cameo in the first film does (which is just as funny, even so).
The film kicks off, as all good sequels should, by reintroducing the Addamses as they relax at home - a depressed Fester howling at the moon in that gorgeously Gothic opening shot, the kids burying a cat alive with Granny in the yard, Lurch playing the Addams Family theme song on an organ (it'll later be played again while Morticia and Gomez waltz at a restaurant – one of many clever details in an incredibly detail-oriented movie), Gomez arm-wrestling, or rather hand-wrestling, with Thing, and finally Morticia happily knitting a onesie for some kind of hideous three-legged creature.
It's their way of saying welcome back to the Addams compound, nothing has changed, and these characters we grew to know and love in the first movie are just as weird as ever – maybe even weirder. Addams Family Values is a Fester-based story once again, but everybody has more to do the second time around. There isn't a weak link in the cast, most of whom are bonafide comedy royalty, from the Addamses to the supporting characters. Nobody is hamming it up either, playing it as straight and serious as the ludicrous material requires, ensuring it’s non-stop funny. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have discussed at length the art of "pummeling" the audience with jokes, in reference to their celebrated Cornetto Trilogy, and rarely is that better represented than here (the idea is there are so many jokes coming in such quick succession that even if one doesn't work the next one will be right along any second).
The joke hit rate in Addams Family Values is insane, up there with Airplane! levels of hilarity. The film continues to resonate because there are still new jokes to discover within it. There's such a variety on display, too: silly jokes, smart jokes, snark, nods to the previous movie/TV series, and even dark, super adult jokes as with the poor girl in the cake (C'est la vie!). You almost wish the movie would slow down to allow an opportunity to catch everything. Crucially, it never winks at the audience, instead playing it dead serious throughout and trusting we're along for the ride, that we're invested enough in these characters.
The art direction (for which the film was Oscar-nominated) is impeccable and incredibly detailed, from the glorious Addams mansion to the lush costuming and the weird little cave restaurant in which Gomez, Morticia, Fester, and Debbie have dinner. The fact Anjelica Huston is lit differently, to make her appear even more beautiful and otherworldly, is a feat of pure genius. Attention to detail is key here. At camp, the girls wear orange uniforms, the boys blue, while the counselors are in boring beige. Everything is in such stark contrast to the Addams kids, even down to the scenery, that it looks as though they came from another planet. In fact, bratty Amanda Buckman even tells them that their "whole family is like some weird medical experiment."
The film's title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the debasement of good, honest family values but it's deliberate in how it simultaneously celebrates how much the Addams clan loves each other. The movie isn't interested in teaching these weirdoes how to fit in with the rest of the sheep. It isn't pandering to anybody but the Addamses, whom it rightfully worships, and whose biggest fear is being normal (see: the frightening morphing of Pubert into a cherubic, cute little baby). Only when the family is torn apart do things start to go downhill for them.
There are no mushy life lessons to be learned, aside from the importance of family. Considering this is an Addams Family story, there's no danger of it veering into the saccharine, but even when it gets perilously close, that sharp wit cuts right through. Gomez and Morticia were a couples goal before that was even a thing and the film never questions their commitment to each other. They're also horny as hell. Meanwhile, the family's obvious wealth and status are joked about via plenty of nods to privilege ("'Cause that's what being privileged is all about!")
The psychotic Debbie, who is welcomed with open arms, is only really a match for the Addamses because she's properly evil. Even strapped to electric chairs, they're still empathetic towards her. Of course, a family whose real idea of torture is being forced to watch Disney movies isn't going to fear death by electrocution but, still, the subversive message that it's cool to be weird – since cynically co-opted by massive conglomerates like Marvel – is strong.
Critics mostly liked the movie, but there were some (including both Siskel and Ebert) who wondered what the point of the whole enterprise was, with a couple even suggesting director Barry Sonnenfeld was more interested in how it looked than how funny it was. Nearly three decades later, it's clear Sonnenfeld was equally concerned with both, as Addams Family Values still looks impressive – even the rickety VFX on Thing are decent, particularly when he's riding a unicycle right off the top – and arguably plays even funnier than it did back then. Years of re-watches afford it a whole other layer of zany, but still jet-black charm.
And, in the grand tradition of movies made before everybody started wearing capes and making self-congratulatory, meta references every ten seconds, Addams Family Values isn't sequel-baiting at all. It will still be watched in another 25 years, by a whole new generation of kids looking to build their own mini-guillotine in the attic to get rid of that pesky new baby who's stealing all the attention, and the nerds who fall helplessly in love with them and are pitied as a result.
In context, it came out when I was five and I reckon I've watched it every year since, while morphing from Wednesday into Morticia (I wish). This is an all-timer for spooky kids who never grew out of that “phase,” a rallying cry to always be yourself, and a contender for one of the funniest and most unique comedy movies ever made, with the cast to match. Spare a thought for the current crop of weirdo tykes, who only have the toothless, dubstep-soaked Hotel Transylvania series to watch. The Addamses would surely be horrified.
P.S. Debbie says hi.