The Addams family has existed in multiple forms, but the three big ones that have made the most impact on culture are, in order, the New Yorker cartoons drawn by Charles Addams across several decades in the middle of the 20th Century, the 1964-'66 television sitcom that gave the characters names and an undying theme song, and the pair of 1990s movies (The Addams Family and Addams Family Values) that embodied them with an all-time perfect cast and made them iconic to the '90s Kids generation that currently holds the reigns of pop culture nostalgia. In all three of these forms, the deal was the same thing: take the mainstream American ideal of the nuclear family - mom & dad have a completely happy marriage untinged by a hint of strife, brother & sister enjoy playing with each other, they all live in a single-family house with enough money to keep a housekeeper - and ruthlessly parody it by rendering all of those values through the prism of a clan of morbid, death-obsessed gothic psychopaths. But also, weirdly, uphold those values by, yeah, having the Addamses seem genuinely loving and supportive and good. They are, and this is very much part of the joke, one of the most thoroughly functional families in American pop culture.

The key ingredient to making this work, I think, is the morbidity: in all versions, The Addams Family needs to be as viciously anti-social as the era and the medium will allow. And this is the point where the new animated feature featuring the characters splats in the middle of the sidewalk like overripe roadkill. It has the gothic design sensibility, for sure - in fact, its character designs have been translated to 3-D CGI animation directly from Charles Addams's original characters. It directly copies the primary gag structure of the '90s movies - a list that goes "normal thing, normal thing, grotesque thing", or a stock domestic situation involving violence. But it is not, even fleetingly, anti-social. It is, I deeply regret to say, a thoroughly generic 2010s-style children's movie that has plugged the Addams family into the joyless boilerplate lesson-learning of that form; it is an unironically sentimental Addams Family movie, and these are characters for whom irony is at the irreducible core of their conception.

It's also ugly as balls. Having good character design is but the first step in the long chain of artistic decisions that culminate in an animated motion picture, and The Addams Family screws up at most of the other ones. It has been animated by Cinesite, a company that primarily works in visual effects, but has a few extremely minor animated features to its credit; the most prominent is 2017's abysmal Biblical adventure The Star, and that is, I think we can all agree, a very discouraging title to count as the "most prominent". If you've seen that film - which I know you haven't so I don't know why I even bothered framing it that way - the aesthetic limitations of The Addams Family are going to feel like old friends, and in both cases it feels very much like a company that knows how to render imagery decides that's the hard part, and not the capturing the essence of the human soul through character movement, and so concludes that it can totally do a cartoon. Except that it's not even maybe so great at rendering imagery. I complained of The Star that "there's something unyielding and unpleasantly smooth about the characters, like they were all misted in lacquer", and I don't see a reason to change a word of that assessment; the human and quasi-human figures in The Addams Family are just wrong in some deep, abiding way: too smooth, too glossy, too sturdy. The realistically-motivated lighting caresses the characters like they're all made of glazed porcelain with no inner glow of their own. It feels like something that would have looked mind-blowing beyond any means of discussing it in, say, the early 1990s, but with a distinctly early-'90s set of limitations attached.

Also feeling mired in the 1990s: every aspect of the screenplay, which fundamentally misunderstands these characters and plugs them into a stock "better to be weird than a conformist" conflict. The thing about the Addams family is that they do not, ever, regard themselves as odd or off-putting or demented, or any of the other things. In all incarnations, they're a happy, well-adjusted family that has no real complaints with the world; when their visitors from the normal world are confused and upset by their macabre ways, the Addamses themselves view this as some lamentable failure of the visitor. Not so in this incarnation, which finds them knowingly self-exiling themselves from the hateful outside world after Gomez (Oscar Isaacs) and Morticia's (Charlize Theron) wedding is interrupted by a pitchfork-wielding mob. The newlyweds flee to New Jersey, where they find an abandoned, haunted asylum on a bluff covered in perpetual fog, and there raise their children Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and Wednesday (Chloรซ Grace Moretz). All is well for thirteen lucky years, at which point house rehabber and reality TV star Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) drains the nearby swamp, thus drying up the air and revealing the Addams manse to the suburban town below. This is Assimilation, a planned community that is to be the centerpiece of Margaux's newest and most high-risk TV/real-estate venture, and she is terrified that the presence of the Addamses will destroy her. Making matters worse, the extended Addams family is gathering from around the world to celebrate Pugsley's coming-of-age ceremony, a traditional dance that the boy is totally unprepared for. And Wednesday is going through her teen rebellion phase and decides to go to the local school and start wearing pink, though the film has too many plots to keep in the air and ends up dropping this one pretty quickly.

It's a grossly unimaginative story that packs on grossly unimaginative jokes. Which, sure, the point of every version of The Addams Family back to the New Yorker is that we already know in advance what the punchline is going to be. So the pleasure lies in seeing the path to the punchline. Here, because the film is not permitted to be mean, that path goes near no sheer cliffs, nor through no thorny thickets, nor into no rank bogs. It's silly rather than legitimately morbid, and not creatively silly, either. A few jokes land (mostly the ones centered on Nick Kroll's Uncle Fester, the only character who feels authentically anti-social), and the voice cast gives their all to make it at least feel energetic and authentically strange, but for the most part, this is strictly the kind of the stuff that's humorous only up to the age of about 8 or 9 - and if the stony silence of the 8-or-9-year-old who was a member of the only other party attending the screening where I saw this was an indication, it helps to be an unsophisticated 8 or 9 on top of it. As for the moral message, it's impossible to disagree with the film, of course, but it's such boilerplate, and not very well-executed; the "be yourself" theme doesn't anchor itself on any of the main characters, all of whom are very comfortable being themselves, and the only people who learn and grow are nameless extras and the villain. When you can't even get the kiddie-flick moral polemics in a formulaic animated comedy right, you've gone pretty far awry indeed, and The Addams Family never honestly even flirts with success.