The ideal Thanksgiving movie has at least two ingredients. The first is a celebration of family, whether actual kin or a makeshift community. The second component is a firm refutation of the holiday’s core mythos. The Thanksgiving story is, after all, quite a bit more complicated than its surface message of harmony between Pilgrims and Native Americans might suggest. That’s why Addams Family Values, a sequel that turns 25 years old this week, remains the pinnacle of the subgenre—even if none of the characters ever sits down for a turkey dinner. The film is a perfect cup of dry cider with just the barest undertone of sweetness.
In 1991, Barry Sonnenfeld directed the original movie The Addams Family, about the cartoonist Charles Addams’s famously morbid clan. The film was a surprise hit, although it got mixed reviews, suffered from a convoluted plot of mistaken identity, and had a tortured production. For the sequel, Sonnenfeld brought in the playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, who later became a regular in the pages of The New Yorker that Addams had once haunted. Together, Sonnenfeld and Rudnick created an unpredictable and brilliant satire (which is currently streaming on STARZ). Addams’s characters had always been a funhouse-mirror version of the traditional nuclear family. But Addams Family Values uses its ensemble to playfully skewer the “us versus them” dichotomy underlying the very notion of the American Thanksgiving.
The general history of Thanksgiving movies is pretty rocky: Compared to the venerable Christmas film, there are very few highlights, and the ones that do stand the test of time tend to be melancholy. Movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Hannah and Her Sisters; and The Ice Storm are about fractured families, reunions gone wrong, and the overwhelming stress of the holiday. Even the comedies tend toward the bittersweet.
Fittingly, Addams Family Values centers on a schism in its Gothic household of well-dressed, joyfully macabre aristocrats. Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) falls in love with a murderous babysitter named Debbie (Joan Cusack), and they quickly wed. Aiming to seize the Addams fortune and unable to kill the seemingly immortal Fester, Debbie turns her new husband against his brother, Gomez (Raúl Juliá), forbidding the two from interacting. She also manages to ship Gomez’s kids Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) off to a summer camp. There, Wednesday comes up against a malevolent force: aggressive, chipper homogeneity in the form of campers and counselors who just love to have fun.
The joke of the Addams family lies in how their glaring, horror-themed peculiarities clash with the world at large (a famous illustration shows the household vacationing by the sea in clothing worthy of morticians). Addams Family Values succeeds in making the deeply antisocial Wednesday into a protagonist that viewers can root for, while framing regular folks as the real weirdos. Wednesday’s nemeses at summer camp—the belligerently cheerful directors Gary Granger (Peter MacNicol) and Becky Martin-Granger (Christine Baranski)—are dictators who punish any deviation from the norm.
But Wednesday eventually triumphs over the Grangers by sabotaging their pseudo-historical Thanksgiving pageant, for which she’s been foolishly cast in the role of Pocahontas. “You have taken the land which is rightfully ours,” she declares in one of the film’s climactic scenes. She then leads the other young misfits who were cast as Native Americans in a violent insurgency, burning the camp to the ground. Having the chalk-white Wednesday dress up as Pocahontas is absurd, and the campers’ revolt offers a simplified portrayal of Native Americans—even though the film uses these scenes to critique a racist performance. The destruction of the camp is meant to be a rebuke of the Grangers’ toxic worldview: For them, only the supposedly ordinary campers are fit to play the Pilgrims, while everyone else gets treated as the “other.”
In Addams Family Values, being on the “ordinary” side is a terrible fate. In fact, normalcy is a literal disease contracted by both Gomez’s wife, Morticia (Anjelica Huston), and their infant son, Pubert, after Debbie splits the family apart. When Pubert is born at the start of the movie, he has black hair and a mustache, just like his father. After Gomez’s rift with Uncle Fester, the baby bizarrely turns into a blond-haired, blue-eyed cherub. “He could stay this way for years! Forever! He could become … a lawyer. An orthodontist. President,” the Addams grandma (Carol Kane) intones sadly, as Gomez rends his garments in agony, screaming, “Take me instead!”
Later on, Gomez goes to a police station to demand Debbie’s arrest. “I demand justice! Someone has married my brother!” he cries at a desk sergeant (played by a young Nathan Lane). “Officer, you must issue a subpoena. I believe they own … a BUICK!” The scene, which was one of Juliá’s final performances before his untimely death, is a masterpiece of comic acting, a fully committed piece of character work where each line earns a belly laugh. He shows how Gomez’s love for his family manifests as horror at the kind of tyrannical conformity that people like the Grangers worship.
The Addamses are ridiculous, monstrous, and practically unkillable, yet they’re one of cinema’s most loving portrayals of a family unit. Each member is ultimately accepting of the others’ idiosyncrasies, fighting back against outside attempts to smother their collective strangeness.“Who are you? What are you? Who moved the rock?” cries the beleaguered sergeant as Gomez berates him; it’s as though the Addams patriarch were simply a grotesque critter hiding beneath a boulder. Sonnenfeld moved the rock, but rather than finding creepy-crawlies underneath, he uncovered something everyone could root for: a group of gleefully ghoulish outsiders, all of them happy to razz every tacky, oppressive convention.