Value this time around

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 1993, 12:00am

ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, with Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, Joan Cusack, Christina Ricci and Carol Kane. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Category II. On Panasia Circuit and at New York.

IN THE absence of Tim Burton's reputedly marvellous Nightmare Before Christmas, this is about as tart and acid an antidote to all the seasonal sickliness being thrown at us on television and elsewhere as one could reasonably hope for. As a bonus, it is also very funny - which, I must admit, came as something of a shock.

Since the first Addams Family movie in 1991, robbing the grave of camp '60s sitcoms for resurrection on the big screen has become a mini-industry, with The Beverly Hillbillies being a minor hit this season in the United States and the live-action The Flintstones set to follow soon.

While Addams Family started a trend, it did not do a good job of it. Die-hard fans of the classic television series (which hit a far larger audience than Charles Addams' original comic strips) were never likely to be satisfied by any attempt to improve on it and were predictably disappointed.

That first film relied too much on the idea of the Addams family being funny in itself, adding little to it except far too many whiz-bang '90s pyrotechnics and Hammer's whiz-bang '90s Addams Rap, in place of the irreplaceable ''they're altogether ookie .. .'' theme song of yore.

Though it was a commercial hit, it virtually destroyed any great expectations we might have had for Addams Family Values, which arrives in the unusual position for a sequel of not having a lot to live up to. This turns out to be a plus factor and the production team - much the same team as before - have been able to pick and choose between what did and did not work last time out.

Also, Barry Sonnenfeld, for whom Addams Family was a directorial debut, has had time to work on his act and become an accomplished gag man.

The characters, played perfectly well by Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd et al are now nearly as comfortably familiar as their predecessors - no introductions necessary, just on with the show.

The less successful last time around - Carol Kane's Granny and Carel Struycken's Lurch - are demoted to freaky sideshow status, while the best - young Christina Ricci's solemn, scene-stealing Wednesday Addams - gets more time to play with the grown-ups and even many of the best lines.

Again she is one of the film's star turns, but even better is Joan Cusack, who tosses in a frantically funny sex-pot routine as that new nanny, Debbie Jellinsky - a gold-digging black widow with wicked designs on rich old, mad old Uncle Fester.

This is the main plot, though there's a substantial second story about Wednesday and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) being packed off to a horribly wholesome summer camp and wreaking terrible revenge, and a third about the arrival of Morticia and Gomez' new baby: ''Is it a boy or a girl? It's an Addams!'' Plot wise, this is roughly three times as much as the original movie had to offer and all the better for it. Gag-wise, the ratio is more like 100 in the sequel's favour.

If the look of the film (at least inside the superbly designed Addams Mansion) is as dark as ever, so too this time around is the humour - blacker, more mordant than you might really expect in what is, after all, a family film. It's perfectly judged, though, and nothing nearly as grisly actually happens here as does in, say, a Home Alone movie. But it's not for want of everyone trying.

With topical humour extending as far as the Addams kids screaming in terror when they are left alone in a camp hut with a Michael Jackson poster on the wall (though I don't think that's quite what Sonnenfeld had in mind), this is not just a children's movie. It's not even just a family movie. Addams Family Values is nothing if not eclectic and should embrace most people's tastes in comedy, however bizarre.