The Addams family have their origins in a 1930s New Yorker comic strip by Charles Addams (hence the name). But to Irish audiences they will be best known from a pair of superdroll movies from the 1990s, featuring Anjelica Huston as the mournful matriarch Morticia Addams and Christina Ricci as her soul-shrivelling daughter, Wednesday.
The spirit of those ghoulishly gleeful films receives a Gen Z twist in Wednesday (Netflix, streaming from November 23rd). Here, the Ricci mantle of little goth girl is taken up by Jenna Ortega. The 20-year-old is a natural in the role of a morbid teenager who takes revenge on bullies by unleashing piranhas in their swimming class, who never saw a gravestone she didn’t want to hug or a big hairy spider she didn’t want to cuddle.
With Wednesday Tim Burton puts recent disappointments behind him and reverts to basics. The shadows are long and creepy, the humor drier than a recently disinterred fibula
The gothic fun is marshalled by Tim Burton. He, of course, has a record in emo-escapism as director of Edward Scissorhands and the creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas. He directs four of eight episodes and is an executive producer.
With Wednesday he puts behind him recent disappointments – were you even aware he adapted Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children? – and reverts to Burton basics. The shadows are long and creepy, the humor drier than a recently disinterred fibula. A richly rococo soundtrack is courtesy of Burton’s regular foil Danny Elfman. It is so deliciously Burtonesque that you almost expect his old collaborator Johnny Depp to come clopping through done up as a rock’n’roll zombie.
Wednesday is more Addams Family spin-off than 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 this is Wednesday’s story. The rest of her brood have a largely supporting role (although Zeta-Jones completely dominates the screen when she turns up for a full episode halfway through).
Resting the entire endeavor on the shoulders of Ortega as Wednesday is a big ask. She’s up to the task, however, and is a revelation as Wednesday, whose disruptive behavior at school sees her family pack her off to Nevermore Academy. The supposed alma mater of Edgar Allan Poe (“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore'” being a line from Poe’s poem The Raven), this is a college for magical outcasts. True to that billing, it looks like something the Brothers Grimm might cook up if forced to read all the Harry Potter novels back to back.
The vibe is very much ghouls out for summer, as Wednesday has to contend with bullies, academic rivals and love interests, including the normie son of the local sheriff (Hunter Doohan). Adolescence is, of course, a horror story on its own. In the case of Wednesday, it features such terrors as crippling introversion and self-esteem issues. (Her hauteur is rooted in a fear of rejection.)
As if that wasn’t enough there is also a literal monster in the woods, ripping apart passersby. Our horrid heroine is quick to twig a connection between the killings and goings-on at her school. If there is a cover-up, though, who is behind it?
Nevermore, like institutions everywhere, has closets overflowing with skeletons. These secrets are protected by Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie). Playing a sort of morally ambivalent Dumbledore, Christie hams it up to perfection – as does Ricci, the grunge-era Wednesday, as a dotty teacher (and Tori Amos lookalike) with a Venus flytrap obsession.
Still, the true star is Ortega, who brings the deathly-pale Wednesday to life as a lost girl with a complicated social life. It all adds up to a horribly compelling watch – and suggests, as a bonus, that Tim Burton might have recovered his macabre mojo.