The Addams Family has its origins in a 1930s New Yorker cartoon by Charles Addams (hence the name). But to Irish audiences they’ll be best known from a pair of super-droll films from the 1990s, starring Anjelica Huston as sad matriarch Morticia Addams and Christina Ricci as her wizened daughter, Wednesday.
The spirit of those macabre, joyous movies gets a Gen Z twist on Wednesday (Netflix, streaming Nov. 23). Here, the curly mantle of a gothic girl is taken up by Jenna Ortega. The 20-year-old is a natural as a morbid teenager taking revenge on bullies by unleashing piranhas in their swim lesson, who’s never seen a tombstone she didn’t want to hug or a big hairy spider she didn’t feel like cuddling.
With Wednesday, Tim Burton puts his recent disappointments behind him and goes back to basics. The shadows are long and haunting, the humor drier than a recently unearthed fibula
Gothic fun is organized by Tim Burton. He, of course, has a record of emotional escapism as director of Edward Scissorhands and creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas. He directs four of the eight episodes and is an executive producer.
With Wednesday he puts his recent disappointments behind him – did you even know he’s adapted Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children? And she goes back to Burton’s base. The shadows are long and haunting, the humor drier than a recently unearthed fibula. A richly rococo soundtrack comes courtesy of Burton’s regular film Danny Elfman. He’s so delightfully Burtonesque that you’d half expect his old collaborator Johnny Depp to show up dressed as a rock’n’roll zombie.
Wednesday is more of an Addams Family spinoff than a faithful continuation of the brand. We are introduced to the forbidding “fam”: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia, Luis Guzmán as Gomez and Fred Armisen as Uncle Fester. But that’s Wednesday’s story. The rest of her brood play largely supporting roles (although Zeta-Jones completely dominates the screen when she shows up for an entire mid-episode).
To rest the whole enterprise on Ortega’s shoulders like Wednesday is a big request. Still, she’s up to the task and is a revelation like Wednesday, whose disruptive behavior at school sees her family whisk her away to Nevermore Academy. The purported alma mater of Edgar Allan Poe (“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'” is a line from Poe’s poem The Raven), this is a college for magical outcasts. True to that billing, it feels like something the Brothers Grimm could come up with if forced to read all the Harry Potter novels back-to-back.
The mood is very ghoul for the summer, as Wednesday has to contend with bullies, academic rivals, and love interests, including the local sheriff’s regular son (Hunter Doohan). Adolescence is, of course, a horror story unto itself. In Wednesday’s case, it features terrors like crippling introversion and self-esteem issues. (Her haughtiness is rooted in fear of rejection.)
As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a literal monster in the woods, tearing apart passers-by. Our horrific heroine is ready to make a connection between the murders and her happenings at her school. If there’s a cover-up, though, who’s behind it?
Nevermore, like institutions everywhere, has closets overflowing with skeletons. These secrets are protected by Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie). Playing a kind of morally ambivalent Dumbledore, Christie does it perfectly — as does Ricci, on grunge-era Wednesday, as a dimwitted teacher (and Tori Amos lookalike) with an obsession with the Venus Flytrap.
However, the real star is Ortega, who brings Pale Wednesday back to life as a lost girl with a complicated social life. It all adds up to a horribly addictive watch and hints, as a bonus, that Tim Burton may have gotten the macabre mojo back of him.