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Wednesday review: Can the Addams Family free Tim Burton?

Creepy and kooky, the Addams Family is prime Burton real estate. So is his Netflix-backed series Wednesday spooky… or altogether ooky?

In the last 40 years, the singular, dark imagination of Tim Burton has changed popular culture. His dreams and nightmares have filled our mental landscapes with stripy sandworms, headless horsemen and jabbering Martians.

At his best Burton reimagined the memento mori for the modern era, making art that asks the big questions about life and death and the meaning of it all. In 1990 he birthed the greatest film of all time (Edward Scissorhands, since you ask). Now, “from the imagination of Tim Burton” (and more quietly Smallville showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar), comes the Netflix take on the Addams Family, Wednesday.

How do we not already have a Burton take on Charles Addams’s cartoons, you may be asking. Creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky, the Addams Family is surely prime Burton real estate. And, right enough, there was a close call back in the early ’90s. Burton had been slated to direct the movie version starring Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, and a young Christina Ricci as Wednesday. Too busy filming Batman Returns, Burton had to pass that time.

In an era when streaming platforms seem willing to sign blank cheques for big brand directors to do whatever the hell they like, the idea has – somewhat inevitably – come back around.

For the most part separating the sullen daughter from her statuesque mother, romantic father and delinquent brother, Wednesday finds the pigtailed goth icon – now a 15-year-old – deposited into a boarding school for outcasts. Nevermore Academy is populated by gorgons, sirens, vampires, werewolves and other sundry supernatural entities. Weird they may all be, but they’re still teens – and steeped in the pecking orders, rivalries and bullies you’d expect / remember.

Elsewhere, there’s also a monster for Wednesday to track down, an ongoing cold war with the “normies” in the local town to navigate, family mysteries to unravel and over-keen boys to handle.

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So far, I feel you shrug, so Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But that’s the problem isn’t it? Where do you go when you wrote the rules for weirdo goth kids so long ago that those kids have had kids? When your aesthetic shaped so much of alternative culture you’re in danger of looking derivative of the people who ripped you off?

They’re questions that have dogged Burton since at least the mid-’90s. The curse that comes of having such a richly piquant vision. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is that you take a big pile of cash from Netflix, work with a bunch of other creatives, and make something enjoyable, that’s still recognisably from your own bizarro world. When everyone knows your rules, why not have a little fun with them?

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More so than almost any other director, Burton’s work tends to feature an avatar for the creator in a central role. Wednesday is no exception. As scissor-handed Edward and Beetlejuice’s Lydia did before her, Wednesday’s helping Tim work through his high school issues.

“I felt like a male Carrie at prom. I felt that feeling of having to be there but not be part of it. They don’t leave you, those feelings, as much as you want them to go,” said Burton. “Wednesday and I have the same worldview.”

Among splatters of campiness and gore, all of which is enormous fun, it’s the sincerity of that worldview that carries Wednesday. Following in the footsteps of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder as Burton’s stand-in, Jenna Ortega has charisma to burn, even though her entire schtick is a cadaver-faced lack of emotion. She nails her deadpan quips to the wall with a big knife, and twists the character into something new and now enough to escape the shadow cast by nineties Christina Ricci. (A task made all the harder as contemporary Ricci’s right there, doing a Yellowjackets-infused turn as one of the school’s teachers.)

Wednesday’s tussles with her mother – a rare appearance from Catherine Zeta-Jones that makes you wish we saw more of her – feel like a real quest to find her place in the world. Her friendship with her roommate, a pastel-haired, failing werewolf called Enid (winningly brought to life by Emma Myers), has the makings of a great oddball pairing. Even the obligatory love triangle (note to writers: in my experience, awkward goth girls don’t do this well with the boys) has an interesting slant. In her extreme standoffishness, Wednesday’s much more like the male romantic interests than the traditional female romcom lead.

There’s so much to love here. It’s another Burton world to explore. Already I want to spend more time there, which is the mark of TV series that has space to grow. Will it fundamentally change you in the deepest parts of your soul? I doubt it. Maybe it’s time us weirdo goth kids gave Burton a break and stop asking him to do that. After all, he already did. He will already go down as one of cinema’s greatest artists. If this is what he does when he’s being a bit more chill, I’m into it.

Wednesday is more entertainment than great art. But it is mighty entertaining.

Wednesday is on Netflix from November 23, 2022

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