Do What They Wanna Do, Say What They Wanna Say – The Addams Family (1991)

The 1991 theatrical film adaptation of The Addams Family is, without question, a shameless example of corporate assembly line filmmaking and I.P. whoring. Somehow, it also kind of works and remains suitably entertaining even a few decades on.

In industry terms, the movie was a nearly perfect package, pairing up a beloved pop culture property from the past with an ideal cast fully into the spirit, and an up-and-coming director with some fun ideas for how to visualize it. The script… well, that part’s basically incidental.

The Addams Family (1991) - Group Portrait
Title:The Addams Family
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Watched On: Netflix
Also Available On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

With its Gothic trappings, loving affection for classic horror movies, and character roster of eccentric misfits, The Addams Family practically begged for a Tim Burton “re-imagining.” We wouldn’t get that for another thirty years, as Burton was busy working on Batman Returns at the time. Failing that, Paramount and producer Scott Rudin handed the assignment to former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (Miller’s Crossing, Misery) to serve as his directorial debut. That he proved to be a capable director (and would go on to bigger things with the Men in Black franchise later) was fortuitous, but they backed him up with such a stellar cast that he almost couldn’t lose.

Looking over the talent pool of actors of appropriate ages available in the early 1990s, I can’t think of anyone better suited to their roles than Raul Julia as family patriarch Gomez Addams, Anjelica Huston as his smoldering wife Morticia, or Christopher Lloyd as the awkwardly oddball Uncle Fester. Each of them feels like a perfect match of actor and character – keeping in mind that the movie is based primarily on the 1960s TV sitcom rather than the original Charles Addams comic strip. They all seem to be having great fun. Yet somehow outshining all of them was Christina Ricci as daughter Wednesday Addams. Just 11-years-old at the time of the movie’s release (probably 9 or 10 during filming), the young actress delivers a flawless and hilarious deadpan performance that still rates as the definitive portrayal of the character. She’d get a lot more screen time in the sequel two years later, and of course would become a big star as an adult.

As director, Sonnenfeld builds an elaborate funhouse for his cast to play in. The sets are an Art Director’s dream. The movie is shot with style, loaded with camera tricks, and choreographed with Rube Goldberg-style set-pieces. Officially, cinematography is credited to veteran Owen Roizman (The Exorcist), but Roizman actually left partway through production due to a conflicting project and his replacement, Gale Tattersal (The Commitments), was then sidelined with illness, leaving Sonnenfeld to put on a D.P. cap and finish shooting it himself. Despite these troubles, the results blend seamlessly.

The weak link in the film, unfortunately, is the screenplay by Larry Wilson and Caroline Thompson, both of whom had recently come off working with Tim Burton (on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, respectively). The central plot, about an unscrupulous lawyer (Dan Hedaya) who tries to swindle the family using a lookalike double for the presumed-dead Fester, is half-baked and feels like an afterthought. The script serves little purpose except to string together a loose collection of random scenes inundated with pun-heavy dialogue.

Most troubling, the studio then insisted that Sonnenfeld shoehorn in a couple MC Hammer songs to help with soundtrack album sales. The end credits “Addams Groove” is lame even by Hammer standards.

Thankfully, the cast pulls everything together and smooths over the rough parts. Raul Julia in particular claimed that playing Gomez was one of the highlights of his career, and you can see the joy radiating off him in his performance. Anjelica Huston hits exactly the right note of aloof sexiness. That the film was a box office hit and is still mostly remembered fondly today is a testament to the terrific chemistry of all the actors involved. They carry the movie even when the writing lets them down.

The Addams Family (1991) - Christina Ricci as Wednesday

Video Streaming

Paramount released The Addams Family on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray just recently, but this isn’t a movie I felt a need to rush out and buy. Nor do I own any prior physical media copies of it. For a spur-of-the-moment viewing inspired by Netflix’s new Wednesday series, I felt that streaming would suffice.

The film was first released on Blu-ray by Warner Bros. back in 2014 with a full-screen 16:9 transfer that was reviewed rather poorly at the time. Paramount later took back the rights and remastered the movie in 2019 at its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I assume (but cannot confirm) that the new Ultra HD is based on that master.

For streaming options, the movie is currently available on Netflix and Paramount+. Netflix is the better choice of those two. The version on Paramount+ appears to be the old 2014 master. Scanning through a couple minutes of it was all I needed to switch services. Netflix has a 1.85:1 transfer that looks noticeably better (though still far from perfect). Sadly, it’s in 1080p HD only, no 4K or HDR yet.

The movie has a ton of optical compositing work that will be a challenge for any video transfer. It’s no surprise that the picture is so often softish and/or grainy. That said, the image I watched was further hampered by what looks like Digital Noise Reduction. The source elements suffer from recurring dirt and speckles. Contrast and colors are adequate but could certainly be crisper. All in all, it looks better than the blurry, faded, and noisy mess on Paramount+, but still has plenty of room for improvement.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on Netflix is likewise adequate but uninspiring. The surround channels are used in a very gimmicky fashion with loud discrete effects that can either be fun or annoying depending on your point of view.

If I cared about this movie more, I might invest in the 4K UHD Blu-ray edition. However, Paramount’s uneven track record in recent years leaves me skeptical for that as well, especially if it’s based on the same master that Netflix is using. I’ll leave that for someone else to judge.


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