The devil is in the details — or, in “The Addams Family 2,” a digitally animated sequel aimed at ages six and over, in the demented ghoulish sparkle of jokes that are just macabre and kiddie witty enough to tickle you. Take, for instance, Uncle Fester, voiced by Nick Kroll with an extreme goofy lisp, sizing up the creaky brown wood camper in which the Addams family are about to take a three-week cross-country trek and saying, “Oh, it’s a hybrid — half car, half eyesore!” Or the way that Morticia, voiced by Charlize Theron in the most musical of aristocratic purrs, doesn’t just walk but glides around in her cadaverous skin-tight dress that drapes over the floor in trails that look like black silk octopus legs. Or Gomez (Oscar Isaac), in his Igor-as-head-waiter hodgepodge of an Old World accent, saying, “Tell that Billie Eilish she’s a little too sunny for my taste.” Or the way that Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz), that paragon of proto goth disaffection, says she’s been social distancing since birth. Or Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader), the mad scientist who’s trying to make Wednesday his daughter, snapping at the regal Morticia, “Oh, pipe down, Elvira!”
Two years ago, the first film in this series, “The Addams Family” (2019), was, of course, the third big-screen “Addams Family” feature, after the two live-action ones that came out in the early ’90s. But it felt like it could have been the 13th. The co-directors, Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, did a splendid job visually, returning the characters to the loopy stylized glory of the original Charles Addams cartoons. But the jokes were too safe and cozy (the movie was far less outrageous than the “Hotel Transylvania” films), and the story was thin even for a knowing piece of cobweb camp.
It’s in the nature of most animated sequels to struggle to recapture the full charm of the original hit. But in the case of “The Addams Family 2,” Tiernan and Vernon have used the sequel as an opportunity for an upgrade. The script is by an entirely new team (Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Ben Queen, and Susanna Fogel), and in some ineffable bats-in-the-belfry way the jokes now land with a more inspired and spontaneous creepy kookiness. At a Little Miss Jalapeño Pepper contest in Texas, Wednesday, looking even more sinister under a mountain of blonde big hair, dumps red paint all over the other contestants as if this were the prom in “Carrie.”
It helps that Wednesday, the spiritual seed for characters from Lydia in “Beetlejuice” to Coraline, gets to be the center of gravity. In form, “The Addams Family 2” is a road-trip movie, with the Addamses traveling in their camper van (which inside somehow looks about as big as their mansion) to visit the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and other spots that speak to their penchant for arid lifeless spaces.
Emotionally, though, it’s all about the mid-tween crisis of Wednesday. She’s robbed of the chance to win the school science fair — even though, with a chemical beaker in hand, she’s like Dr. Frankenstein crossed with Pippi Longstocking. Her father thinks she doesn’t need him anymore. And a pesky attorney, who looks just like Wallace Shawn (and is voiced by him), shows up to inform Gomez and Morticia that their beloved little ghoul isn’t actually their daughter; she was switched at birth. There’s a flashback to Fester making a visit to her in the hospital nursery, where he hilariously juggles the infants on hand (and is too Fester-brained to bother putting them back correctly), at which point we seriously wonder: Could Wednesday be the daughter of Cyrus, who covets the pitiless detached genius of her psycho scientific mind?
The secret of the Addams family, of course, is that they’re actually a clan of innocents. They mean well — they’re a devoted middle-class extended family — and, if anything, the rest of the world seems jaded by comparison. In “The Addams Family 2,” there’s a funny sequence in which Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton), controlled by Wednesday with a rag-doll voodoo doll, wins over some girl tourists with his dance moves before pitching himself over the side of Niagara Falls. (He’s also a pyromaniac who literally blows up the Grand Canyon.) And when Wednesday gets “adopted” by Cyrus, whose wife is literally a bird (the stranger the movie gets the better — and that’s strange), our heroine’s ambivalence about whether or not she wants to leave her parents makes for a genuine bittersweet excavation of the Addams attitude. Wednesday is a pure misanthrope (greeting some other kids her age, she says, “Excuse me, vacuous lemmings”), but beneath that punk superiority Chloë Grace Moretz laces her with just the right hint of freakish inner normalcy.
I should mention that Lurch, at a biker bar, sits down at the piano and sings “I Will Survive.” And that Snoop Dogg’s ingenious vocal performance as It has you thinking spinoff. After the 2019 “Addams Family,” I had no real desire to sit through another one of these. After “The Addams Family 2,” however, I now hope that there’s an “Addams Family 3.” But only if the filmmakers keep doing what they do here: in their PG way, upping the ante on the cuddly bed-bug insanity of it all. Many of the movie’s jokes are merely benign. But the best ones really are a scream.