There's one main reason any film gets a sequel: because some producers got a bit of money, and want to get a bit more. And for the great majority of sequels, that's where it stops, which is why so many of them are such joyless retreads, doing the same thing but bigger and louder (or, in the worst cases, just doing the same thing the same way), rehashing the original rather than building something new on top of it. But every now and then, we get a sequel that's genuinely inspired, motivated by a real creative impulse as much as by straightforward greed. And in the sequel-crazed 1990s, there are few if any examples of a thoroughly worthwhile follow-up that's more obviously motivated by the delighted joy of its creators than Addams Family Values, the 1993 movie that runs where 1991's The Addams Family could only walk. It's a sequel that's clearly an across-the-board improvement on its predecessor (with only one exception), and its predecessor wasn't too shabby in the first place; but it's a little tentative, a little overly concerned with making sure we follow what's going on. Addams Family Values has no such concerns, instead exulting in the possibilities of bizarre comic excess that The Addams Family pointed towards. And of course, Addams Family Values ended up making less than half as much money at the box-office, because everything sucks all of the time.

At the very least, Family Values replicates all of The Addams Family's strengths. It replicates the playfully nasty production design of the first film without simply copying it (this time around, production designer Ken Adam and set decorator Marvin March received the Oscar nomination that Richard Macdonald and Cheryal Kearney were unfairly deprived of two years prior). The filmmakers, under the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld, once again use exaggerated lens lengths and camera angles to drive home the visual gags that hearken back to Charles Addams's original macabre New Yorker cartoons, while building the script around the rhythm of those cartoons' single-panel gags. And the immaculately-assembled cast has gotten no less perfect in the intervening two years. Indeed, the cast has improved: the one replacement to the original ensemble finds Carol Kane stepping in as Granny Addams, bringing her characteristic screeching voice and perfect comic timing to a role that wasn't nearly this much fun last time. The side characters are all more boldly colorful: Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski are outstanding as a pair of horrible authoritarian yuppies, shrilly enforcing their rancid upper-middle class bigotry on the inmates at a summer camp with big menacing smiles. And the film has a phenomenal new villain in Joan Cusack's Debbie Jellinsky, a fortune-hunting husband-murdering serial killer whose derangement offers a funhouse mirror version of the more, shall we say, wholesome morbidity of the Addamses themselves. Cusack is a marvel in the role, playing up the cartoonish madness of her character in a way that makes her seem right at home in this bent world, but also somehow more actively malicious and dangerous - it's the kind of villain turn that helps to set off the protagonists by virtue of showcasing how they aren't her.

Another major improvement over last time: the new film has a much more functional story, one based specifically in a familarity with how the Addams family works, rather than building up that familiarity through outsiders. Following on the end of the first movie, Morticia Addams (Anjelica Huston) is pregnant. Point in fact, Family Values introduces a continuity error, by suggesting she hasn't mentioned her pregnancy to anybody, but it results in such a fantastic line ("Marvelous news. I'm going to have a baby. Right now."), delivered with such ace deadpan timing and a mildly concerned facial expression by Huston, that I'm disinclined to care. Anyway, she and husband Gomez (Raul Julia) are delighted to welcome a new baby boy, Pubert, into the family, and this causes great distress to their existing children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman). The kids immediately set out to kill their brother, always failing largely through chance, and their parents decide that the time has come to bring in a nanny. This is how Debbie works her way into the family, hoping to marry Gomez's elder brother Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and immediately murdering him to access the family fortune. Instantly recognising that Wednesday is the sharpest member of the family, Debbie manages to have the kids shipped off the the gruesomely upbeat Camp Chippewa, while she starts to work on Fester.

Same basic situation as the first movie - a nefarious outsider tries to con the family out of its fortunes - but so much richer. It's based more in the characters, and allows for comedic situations more specifically tailored to them: it would be hard to overstate how much mileage the film gets out of Wednesday and Pugsley's horrified reactions to the middlebrow hell of the camp. That's also one of the obvious strengths of this film. Clearly, somebody figured out that Ricci was a major strength, and so an entire subplot has been centered around her. The young actor was already a strong candidate for MVP of The Addams Family; here in Family Values, she's obviously the first among equals, given as much of a wide range of situations to play as screenwriter Paul Rudnick can manage without discarding all the other characters entirely. There are bone-dry line readings galore; there are menacing, psychopathic stares; there's a scene where Ricci does fantastic work contorting her face into a hideous approximation of a smile; there's even a romantic subplot with the miserable, allergy-prone Joel Glicker (David Krumholtz), to let Ricci also put on a terrific parody of a romantic comedy lead.

There's a lot of film that isn't The Christina Ricci Show, and it's not as strong, but it more than gets the job done. The very smart choice Addams Family Values makes in its A-plot is to have the same basic "outsider is baffled and offended by the Addamses' creepy, kooky world" scenario as the first movie and a great many episodes of the 1960s TV show, but to make the outsider herself a fairly rich comic figure. Debbie is no straight man, and the film never sags when it goes through its de rigueur "ain't these people bizarre? Ain't they macabre?" beats. It just tells different jokes, ones that feel indebted to the prolific history of short animated comedies in which one funny animal keeps blowing itself up while trying to torment another. That plus the punchy one-off jokes that the film designs after the original New Yorker cartoons turns out to be an extremely productive combination.

On top of which, Addams Family Values has some fairly pointed satire on its mind. The Fester and Wednesday subplots suffer a bit from feeling like they came out of two entirely different movies, but what saves them and unifies them into a whole is that they're both fairly openly attacking the mores and consumption habits of the upper middle class. Debbie's dream of extreme wealth is to populate a banal McMansion with tacky furniture, and her big third-act villain monologue makes it clear that her only motivation has ever been to have the nice things that all boring suburbanites aspire to. The villains at Camp Chippewa, meanwhile, are extremely direct, biting parodies of patronising well-to-do bourgeois liberals; the film is so unconcerned with hiding its intentions that "We're all here to learn, to grow, and to just plain have fun! 'Cause that's what being privileged is all about!" pops up fairly early on in the dialogue.

I don't mean to say that Addams Family Values is strong because its comedy has a surface-level message; The Addams Family had no such thing, and still did fine for itself. It's strong because this satire is set against the Addamses themselves, a self-indulgent old-money family that nevertheless begins first with warmth and sincere affection for everyone in the family and an indifference to material goods. "Family values" doesn't show up in the title just because it's a pun; it really does feel like that's the ethos of this movie, even more than it was in the first one. It is a story about how the kind of people motivated by love are simply better than the kind of people motivated by status, even when the first people also bury live animals and joyfully reminisce about the murders and deaths they've been involved with.

I mentioned way back at the top that there was one place where the sequel didn't quite outdo its predecessor; sadly, this film has much less for Gomez and Morticia to do. Julia and Huston don't reflect that in their performances; line-for-line and beat-for-beat, I think Huston is actually better in this movie than the first one, with more perfect timing of her little flashes of self-amused depravity (it probably helps that she also is favored with even better eye-lighting than last time; cinematographer Donald Peterman has figured out a way to make her otherworldly bright eyes fade into the rest of her face rather than feel like they've been carved out of it, and the lighting moves with her head more smoothly). I wonder if Julia was starting to grow ill, and they had to limit his work as a result; he would only make one more movie, 1994's Street Fighter, before succumbing to cancer. If that's the case, it has been entirely hidden by the editing, which makes Gomez seem like a whirlwind of passionate energy - literally so, in one beautifully-assembled comic dance number - though there is much less of him than before.

Having less of those characters, and their extravagantly kinky ardor for each other, does leave one obvious place to criticise Addams Family Values; it is the only such place. In every other way, this is a completely satisfying version of itself, sparing nothing in its black humor, creating a fully-realised world that never stops to explain itself, and doing the "live-action cartoon" thing with unusual flair and commitment. Out of all the many sequels to come out in the 1990s, this is one of the very best, and almost certainly my favorite of that decade's high-concept big-budget comedies. Whether Julia's death or the film's weak performance at the box office was primarily responsible for keeping us from a third movie, it's hard to say, but we're probably better off: it's impossible for me to imagine that another movie could find any way to improve on this delightfully warped fantasy.