I do not, in general, harbor much nostalgia, nor warm feelings of any kind, for the 1990s. But if I did, it would be because it really only was in the 1990s that a film like The Addams Family could come into existence in the form we have it. The film lies at the confluence of a number of trendlines: first, there's the high-concept big-budget popcorn movie genre-comedy, a genre that was refined and perfected through the 1980s (where it was typified by Ghostbusters), and which transformed with the change of the decade as widespread use of computers meant that visual effects got better, and as changing tastes in humor mean that shuffling hang-out comedies were replaced with plottier films. Second, there's the "how can we strip-mine old brand names" impulse; it seems almost quaint to look back from the perspective of the 2010s, and argue that exploiting viable IPs was a particular problem of any other decade, but the 1990s did have that ongoing question about whether there was actually anything new going on in popular culture, or if everything had been reduced to remixes, remakes, homages, and parodies. And one particular form this impulse took was the creation of feature-film remakes of old television shows, of which The Addams Family was one of the first. It also took the form of adaptations of comic books and comic strips, which went from being a curiosity to a major commercial concern over the course of the decade, and if you actually dig into what the film is, and don't just stop at the fact that it's titled The Addams Family, it does draw more from Charles Addams's run of New Yorker cartoons than it does from the 1960s sitcom. The late '80s and early '90s were a uniquely welcoming moment for macabe humor in pop culture, with Tim Burton having blazed a trail that started to get fairly well-worn for a few years, and it really is impossible to imagine The Addams Family without a macabre sense of humor (or without the filmmakers being able to point at Burton and saying "see? Like that guy", particular in the case of Marc Shaiman aping Danny Elfman for the score). And if the film had come out even a few years later, it most likely wouldn't have had an MC Hammer novelty rap single, "Addams Groove", playing over the end credits, and while I think we can have a long debate over whether that would be bad for the film (or, more likely, we wouldn't have that debate), there's no denying that the song looms large in the film's legend.

While all of these things serve to mark The Addams Family with an indelible stamp - this film could have come out no earlier than 1990, and no later than 1993 (they absolutely would have spent more money on the visual effects in a post-Jurassic Park world, I think), and as it happens it was released in November, 1991 - the most important reason to be grateful it was made at the exact moment it was is that this exact cast and crew probably couldn't have come together at any other moment. And this exact cast and crew is everything. Barry Sonnenfeld, a cinematographer making his first film as a director, put the kind of "gotta get it right" energy into every shot and scene that you only get from somebody desperate to prove himself (you surely do not get it, for example, from most other Barry Sonnenfeld pictures). Producer Scott Rudin had built up just enough of a portfolio of well-mounted small films that he could get away with doing something big. But most importantly, maybe, if this film doesn't get made in 1991, it probably doesn't get made with this cast. Anjelica Huston had just become a big enough deal that everyone wanted to want to work with her, and she had a certain authentic movie star screen presence and authority; Raul Julia (who had no small amount of movie star presence of his own) was in the last years of his life; Christopher Lloyd was still riding high off of the Back to the Future movies and hadn't yet turned into the amusing old bumbler in kids movies. And far and away most important of all, there was only one year in the entire history of humankind where Christina Ricci was 10 years old, and that's the year when The Addams Family started production. And while I'm sure there's a good version of The Addams Family without Christina Ricci in it, I really cannot imagine what it might look like.

At some point, I suppose I had ought to actually talk about the movie, so let's get to it. The Addams family lives in a ramshackle old mansion inspired by the decaying 19th Century architecture of Charles Addams's hometown of Westfield, New Jersey. Unusually for families in drama, they're quite a well-adjusted, healthy bunch: Gomez (Julia) and Morticia (Huston) are vigorously in love and lust after years of marriage, and they offer their children Wednesday (Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), kind and loving guidance through life with a firm but yielding hand. The children's grandmother (Judith Malina) lives with the family without a trace of strife, and the family treats butler Lurch (Carel Struycken) and servant Thing (Christopher Hart's right hand) as respected equals. It's just that for the Addamses, "well-adjusted" means something very different than for the rest of humanity: they are a morbid, violent, death-and-destruction-obsessed clan, whose home resembles a combination of haunted house, torture chamber, and abattoir.

In Charles Addams's cartoons, this was, in essence, the whole thing. The often-wordless single panels depicted the (then-unnamed) members of the family doing things that bland Eisenhower-era American suburban families do, only doing them in some macabre, perverse way. In its heart of hearts, the movie obviously wants to do the same. There are basically only three kinds of jokes here, and only one punchline. There are the visual gags, in which we see somebody doing something dark and violent in a typical domestic situation - for example, pouring boiling oil onto Christmas carolers, playing with dolls by chopping their heads off (both of which are taken directly from the cartoons). Then there are two kinds of verbal jokes. One, a character will describe something horrible, and then say that it makes them happy. Two, a character will list two things that are typically regarded as wholesome and normal, and then list a third thing that is morbid or antisocial, and make it clear through their delivery that they regard all three as exactly equal. That doesn't literally describe 100% of the jokes in The Addams Family, but I'm pretty certain that it describes more than 90%.

Somehow, this doesn't just work; this thrives. Between the dedication of the cast, and the ingenious craftsmanship being poured into the film from every corner, the metronomic predictability of the humor ends up serving as a great strength and source of pleasure. It's almost like, having told us in advance how the jokes will work, the filmmmakers free themselves up to entertain us with all of the wild details they can come up with as the what of the jokes. It is a lovingly fussed-over movie in every respect: most obviously, the rickety, bedtime-story creepiness that production designer Richard Macdonald pours into every single set (somehow, the film's production design wasn't nominated for an Oscar, although the costumes, by Ruth Myers, were). But befitting the work of a cinematographer-turned-director, a great deal of the wit and flair in the film comes from how shots are set up, and especially how the camera moves to strange, distended high angles and low heights: Sonnenfeld and cinematographer Owen Roizman have managed the great feat of making a film where just a well-chosen wide-angle lens can serve as a punchline in and of itself; or, often, it can be the eerie glowing eye lighting they use to make Huston's face always feel a full f-stop brighter than anything else in frame, the perfect accompaniment to her gliding movements, lyrical line deliveries, and 1000-yard gazes (Huston is narrowly my pick for MVP in a film with several good candidates for that title; Ricci, however, gets the best individual moments, playing an ice-cold psychopath to perfection. She is the one character in this madhouse who feels genuinely dangerous, and she feels that way at every moment).

It is, in short, the perfect adaptation of a single-panel comic strip, operating primarily at the level of "here's a gag, here's another, here's a third", and letting the bizarre rhythms of the cast move us from gag to gag with a stately slowness that keeps a fundamentally slapstick-driven film from ever feeling too busy or rushed. And this is all really marvelous and wonderful, and the only pity is that The Addams Family is just a little nervous about committing to it. Movies do, after all, have stories, for the most part; single-panel comic strips do not. So screenwriters Caroline Thompson & Larry Wilson obligingly provide a story, and it is not, I think, the right one. In short, the Addams's corrupt, broke lawyer, Tully Alford (Dan Hedaya, perfectly finding the right notes to play the straight man to the Addamses while being sufficiently caricatured to avoid throwing the mood off), has teamed up with the loan shark breathing down his neck, Abigail Craven (Elizabeth Wilson), to con the family out of their vast fortune in gold, jewels, and artifiacts: Abigail's hulking son Gordon (Lloyd) is a dead ringer for Gomez's long-missing brother Fester, and the con artists hatch a scheme to drop him into the Addams house and find the family vault; eventually, the plan will involve forcing the family out altogether, forcing them to cope with the hideous normality of the outside world. All goes well until Gordon starts to find that he's happier pretending to be an Addams than actually being Abigail's son, and this is for a very good reason that the film never especially pretends is going to be a twist, though it does explain it at needlessly great length in a somewhat tedious coda.

That's not really a bad plot, especially if we take it that the purpose of the film is to rekindle our love for the TV show (which in 1991 was a much safer gamble than it sounds now, when the film has thoroughly surpassed the show as the primary manifestation of the Addamses in the popular consciousness). It has a nice "getting the band back together" vibe. But it means the film has a split personality: on the one hand, here's this somewhat cumbersome, jerry-rigged story about a con artist serving as our entry point into the strange world of the film, and providing dramatic stakes. On the other hand, the film assumes from literally its very first shot (a tremendously good, quintessentially '90s crane shot across the faces of carolers and up the Addams house) that we get it, and we're just here for the punchlines, and there's no real concern if they build in a certain direction, just so long as they persist in being funny. Simply put, the plot is a drag on the creepy, kooky energy that the film constructs so effortlessly, and every time it reasserts itself, it feels like we've been splashed in the face with cold water. It's not a bad effort at cramming this all into the structure of a commercial film and visually spectacular popcorn movie, but it also feels distinctly busy and overworked. It's proving a concept and learning how to ride with training wheels, and in some ways, the single best thing we can say about The Addams Family is that it cleared the way for Sonnenfeld and the same cast (but mostly different crew heads) to improve upon it in every single way when they got back together to do this all again.