The 2019 animated version of The Addams Family is remarkably free of any positive elements, including the one thing that should be considered the non-negotiable baseline for any media adaptation of Charles Addams's macabre New Yorker cartoons: a genuine streak of cruel morbidity. It's a children's movie, and that of course puts a ceiling on it, but even 1960s network television was able to put a genuine undercurrent of antisocial weirdness behind the stock domestic situations. The Addams Family '19 just plops Addams's character designs into one of the most dismally generic CG-animation kids' movie scenarios on the books.

The Addams Family 2, a sequel that presumably must have been desired by somebody (as it turns out, the 2019 film was a pretty enormous hit relative to its budget, and the new one has been having a quietly potent box-office run throughout October 2021), isn't good as an adaptation of the cartoons, and it's not good on its own merits as an animated feature, but I have to give credit where credit is due: it is an unambiguous improvement over its predecessor. And much of this has to do with it correcting that one fatal flaw of The Addams Family: it has a nasty streak. It's even strongly implied that deadpan tween psychopath Wednesday Addams (ChloΓ« Grace Moretz) causes a man to plummet to his death by dropping him into a canyon, which feels almost too nasty, but given the choice, I'd rather have this than the neutered whatever-it-was from 2019.

Which isn't to say that The Addams Family 2 isn't neutered in its own ways. If anything, this film's story is even worse than the first film's, since it involves so much more effort. The basic idea this time is that Wednesday is, like all young adolescents, just so embarrassed by her corny family, and she wishes she wasn't related to them. And that wish just might come true: while her father, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), ponders ways to bring the family back together, and her mother, Morticia (Charlize Theron), keeps insisting that Gomez just needs to back off and let adolescence run its course, they're visited by an ill-tempered lawyer, Mr. Mustela (Wallace Shawn), who delivers a bombshell: it appears that Wednesday may have been accidentally switched with another child at the hospital when she was a newborn, and so the Addamses have been living with the wrong daughter all these years. In a jolt of panic, Gomez and Morticia decide to flee across the country to avoid the lawyer, reasoning that a road trip to all of America's most morbid, death-haunted places might be just what it takes to bring Wednesday back. She, of course, just wants to be left at home, and being forced on the trip only deepens her resentment of Gomez's over-the-top dad behavior.

I would love to have a chance to corner the writers of The Addams Family and The Addams Family 2 - seven credited writers between the two films, with not one person overlapping - and demand to know why they decided that it was the right call to give Wednesday Addams, a character whose shtick is that she's got the soul of a 40-year-old serial killer in a cute little girl's body, thoroughly unimaginative "tween girls chafe against their parents" boilerplate plotlines. At least she kills a dude in this one, in addition to practicing some mad science: the film's main subplot involves her inadvertently transforming her Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) into an octopus. Still, the fact that we have an Addams Family picture whose plot revolves around a flailing attempt by a goofball dad to reconnect with his too-cool daughter by forcing her onto a road trip (such an original and fresh conceit that it's already the second animated feature released in 2021 to trot it out, after The Mitchells vs. the Machines) tells me that the people who made it are in some ways uncomfortable with the whole "Addams Family" thing.

That's bad enough, but then the film doubles-down by making the story a terribly dull slog. By virtue of being a travelogue, The Addams Family 2 inherently ends up functioning as a series of episodes, and nobody from directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon on down seems to have much of an idea how to do anything but let each of those episodes exist in almost perfect isolation from the rest. Literally the only thing that gives the film any shape at all is the increasing cephalopodisation of Fester's body; otherwise, it's just an endless chain of "stop at a place, run through a few mildly creepy/kooky gags, have Wednesday grouch a bit" sequences. Some of this isn't terrible, but it has the misfortune for the jokes to get increasingly anodyne and detached from both the plot and the characters as it goes forward: when they arrive at a novelty hotel that Gomez mistakes for the Alamo, the film goes on an achingly long tangent about unbearably cutesy talent shows (complete with a musical number!) and Texan stereotypes. And this is still miles better than the next musical number, when the family's butler, Lurch (Vernon, but his singing voice is Dominic Lewis) regales a seedy biker bar with a performance of "I Will Survive". And not even, like, a mysterious or spooky version, just a pretty straightforward cover. Which I suppose makes it at least a bit ooky. Anyway, this is fully choreographed, and lasts for the entire song, and I guess it's good for the dance party endings to be moved up a bit, so they're not the last part of the movie.

Kind of a dreary experience overall, then, though at least it gets more authentically morbid when it arrives at its final act and the family meets the deranged superscientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader), whose many acts of mad science include a bit of Dr. Moreau. Still, it's never worse than the first movie, and it is at times better - not many times, and not better enough, but let's not quibble.

Anyway, the better part still is that The Addams Family 2 actually looks pretty good: the last film was remarkably ugly, wasting the Addams character designs that had been thoughtfully translated into 3-D by lathering them in slick texturing and flat lighting. This time, there's actually some complexity to the animation: the effects, in particular, are outright good, and the film leans in hard enough on eerie glowing things and mysterious sources of eldritch light that there's plenty of effects to go around. It's a clammy-looking film, always to the benefit of the material; if the plot only occasionally bothers to go for suitably morbid touches, the visuals do so rather frequently, from the gloom of the Addams mansion to the slimy surface of Fester's tentacles. It doesn't have the spidery Gothic quality of the original cartoons, but there's something to the design and lighting that gives the film a genuine sense of the Halloween-esque. It's still a far cry from what this material could be, and both the story and humor are awfully difficult to enjoy as an adult, but at least it's not an active embarrassment to the brand name this time around.