Kid’s Stuff: Another among others in Addams Family 2

The Addams Family 2 (2021) - IMDb

Before I spend too many words praising Addams Family 2 – which I will be doing – I want to start by referring back to the last time the Addams Family was a main subject of this blog. I have been relatively consistent since my writing of that piece in situating the creative rights of artists to make use of old media over that of firms to continue to profit off their purchased ownership of them. I persist that Adult Wednesday Addams was sufficiently transformative that, even within the bounds of copyright law as conceived, it should constitute IP protected parody. This film is a product of MGM’s ownership claim which I do think is harmful to a franchise venerable enough (Charles Addams having died over 30 years ago) that it really should be public domain. With that said, The Addams Family 2 is a remarkably good family film and the things they do with Wednesday, in particular, as a character are interesting. This film presents a favorable counter-point to the failings of The Mitchells vs the Machines and in light of my criticism of the latter for the ways in which it reinforced patriarchy and demanded that children must recognize parental hardship in the face of mistreatment I think it’s valuable to show how this film, through the use of a lighter touch and a different family dynamic managed to use the same premise: father arranges a road trip in a bid to connect to his increasingly distant daughter, to much better effect.

The fascinating thing is the extent to which these two movies mirror each other. There is, as mentioned above, a very similar inciting incident. Wednesday is increasingly distant from her family, whose foibles have become terribly irritating to her. Gomez is anxious that his daughter is acting aloof and impulsively decides to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip. Meanwhile a tech billionaire has devised a new product which works poorly and Wednesday holds the key. His interactions with the family drive the a-plot of the movie and provide an action frame upon which to hang an exploration of a father-daughter dynamic. This is all hauntingly familiar to anyone who has watched The Mitchells vs the Machines. There are, however, two very significant differences between these films and they are the sources of the strength of the Addams Family 2 over the older film. The first is that The Addams Family 2 uses a much lighter touch with the conflict between Wednesday and Gomez and a much healthier relationship dynamic between Gomez and his wife than the triangle formed by Katie, Rick and Linda in The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Unlike Katie and Rick, there’s nothing really wrong in the relationship between Wednesday and Gomez. He’s a loving and doting father who still sees Wednesday as his little girl. Wednesday sees the impulsive, passionate, affectionate Gomez as embarrassing and cloying. Like Rick, Gomez has to learn to trust his daughter to make good decisions for herself but Wednesday doesn’t need to come to any sort of cathartic understanding of Gomez’s perspective. She just has to come to accept that heredity isn’t a straight jacket and that she doesn’t have to renounce her family ties to create her own identity. This understanding on her part is sufficient to resolve her conflict with Gomez and restore the family to harmony. Morticia, meanwhile, is not caught in the middle. She acts as a confidant and helper to both Wednesday and Gomez, giving Wednesday an important plot MacGuffin that serves to cement her place in the family but also talking through parenting strategies with Gomez and, in fact, sharing agency over his mistakes.

It’s unsurprising that any modern configuration of the Addams Family has Morticia and Gomez being the sort of couple who talk through their fears together and who come to mutually agreed parameters with how to act that they both follow through on, but it is refreshing in comparison to Rick’s boorish anachronism. And this changed dynamic helps to drive home that Wednesday’s parents truly love her unconditionally and want the best for her. If they fail it’s because they’ve not calibrated how ready she is to decide, for herself, what is best.

The other significant difference is the handling of the villain. In Mitchells vs the Machines I was always very dissatisfied with the easy way Mark Bowman is let off the hook. Although his decision to discard PAL was the inciting moment of the a-plot action, he is quickly eclipsed as the villain. He regrets easily and at the end of the film has learned the error of his ways.

There’s no such kindness given to Cyrus Strange. He’s a rotter through and through. In the initial moments of the film Wednesday, at a school science fair, devises a machine to transplant animal traits into humans. The example provided is transferring the ability to solve Rubik’s cubes from her pet octopus into her oafish uncle Fester. Strange, played with airs of Steve Jobs and Tony Stark in equal measures, witnesses the demo and immediately tries to con Wednesday into giving her invention to him. She refuses, claiming it’s built around a “family secret.”

However Pugsley, Gomez and Morticia attend the science fair too, despite Wednesday’s admonitions for them to stay away, and between Pugsley’s pyromaniacal reconfiguration of another student’s baking soda volcano and Gomez and Morticia’s PDAs they manage to both destroy the venue and mortify their daughter.

Gomez then proposes a road trip to bring the family back into harmony and as they are leaving they’re confronted by a lawyer claiming that Wednesday is not, in fact, an Addams but has been switched in the hospital – a danger later made more plausible when Fester admits that he snuck into the hospital on the night Wednesday was born and upset all the babies, a situation he resolved by juggling said newborns. He says he’s mostly sure he put all the babies back where they went. Gomez and Morticia aren’t particularly interested in discussing their anxieties about being hounded by a lawyer seeking a paternity test with their aloof daughter but she overhears them discussing the issue and goes on a quest to discover the truth of her parentage.

Of course it’s all a con. Strange heard about the disruption at the hospital and used it as a basis to supplant Wednesday’s family in the belief it would gain him access to her technology. Although his aesthetics – black turtlenecks and holographic displays – point to the stereotypical billionaire-entrepreneur-inventor character, Strange is more of a Dr. Moreau. His great plot is to create human-animal hybrids to staff militaries and call centers. That’s right, the evil plot of the villain of this movie is to try and do the thing from Sorry to Bother You. He fakes a DNA test and tries to persuade Wednesday that she is really his long-lost daughter. This goes poorly for him and by the end of the movie Strange has been transformed so that his appearance corresponds to the ugliness of his heart. His lies are exposed and he is killed by Uncle Fester, now transformed into a tentacular kaiju by the side-effects of Wednesday’s treatment. None of this is ground-breaking to anybody who has paid attention to the themes of the Addams Family in the last (checks calendar) 57 years. The Addams Family are strange but loving. The beauty of their hearts becomes revelatory despite their outward strangeness while their enemies all start quite mundane but their own inward monstrosity slowly is revealed through the awful ways they treat the lovable oddballs of the cast. This works as well with the animated characters today as it did during both the Julia / Huston / Lloyd / Ricci movies and the original TV show. The gloss of tech billionaire helps to drive home the mundanity of Strange and makes the revelation of his monstrosity thus that bit more poignant.

The funny thing about the Addams Family movie is how low-stakes it all kind of seems. Wednesday is always so obviously an Addams. It’s present in the steampunk lab she sets up in the science fair and her “tremble brief mortals” monologuing about her experiment. It is deployed in a moment of legitimate humour when, in an effort to hide her from the lawyer, the Gomez enrolls Wednesday in a Texas child beauty pageant. Another girl in the group politely asks Wednesday what her talent is and Wednesday reveals that it’s min reading before promptly and horrifically invading the other girl’s mind, sending her screaming from the room in abject terror.

Later, during the same sequence, Wednesday is in the midst of the other girls on stage but, ignorant of the expected dance moves and blocking she keeps getting shoved around by the other girls until, at the moment of the climax of the musical number, she reveals a dagger secreted in her boot and cuts a rope backstage, spilling buckets of *ahem* red paint on each of the other girls in a delightfully deranged callout to Carrie.

In general the movie subverts the expectation of conflict. In one scene Wednesday commands Lurch to show a gang of bikers what his cold dead hands can do. He sings a disco number and ultimately replicates one of the best scenes from Tangled (only better because I Will Survive is a bop whereas I’ve Got a Dream is one of the Disney Princess line’s weakest songs.) In a later scene Lurch is sent into conflict with a bruiser in the employ of Strange but the villain’s thug immediately changes sides – it transpires that he was previously Lurch’s room mate at the asylum Gomez retrieved Lurch from and they’re quite fond of each other. In fact this show delights in setting up conflict and then giving us a moment of harmony instead as much as it does in setting up something mundane and pleasant – a science fair, a marriage proposal, a beauty pageant, and so on – only to transform it into absolute carnage. There is a winking kind of edge to the humour in this film which, at its best, manifests like the Carrie homage and, at its worst, is pretty much bog-standard weed jokes trading off the stunt-casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin It. Which really isn’t all that bad when you get right down to it.

I wouldn’t say that Addams Family 2 is without flaws. Some of the fine details of the beauty pageant scene will almost certainly have reasonable critical readings that will point to some issues with perspective and power relations in the United States and the use of a vial containing a drop of blood from every member of the Addams Family as both a metaphor for the bonds of family and as a literal tool to save Fester from the unintended consequence of Wednesday’s hubris is a bit overly treacly for a movie that generally slashes away the maudlin with a riot of camp excess. However what we end up with, though imperfect, remains one of the better realizations of a non-toxic family comedy about a daughter growing up and a father struggling to come to terms with this. Wednesday is a freak. And so are her family. And their freakishness is not the same as hers and it bugs her. She doesn’t like PDAs and REALLY doesn’t want a hug.

But what makes it good is that, while Wednesday learns it may occasionally, rarely, be OK to give her freakish dad a hug because she loves him and cares for his feelings, she doesn’t have to be like her parents. She can be other than them. And being different, being other, doesn’t invalidate the bonds between them.

And that’s alright as a message by me.

Hollywood and Fan Creator culture – copyright isn’t as simple as pirates and police

sad youtubeI’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family, as such it isn’t surprising that I found Melissa Hunter‘s fanseries, “Adult Wednesday Addams” to be absolutely adorable.

So I was sad a few days ago when I found out it had been pulled. Speculation on the internet was  that it was brought down because of backlash over the cat-calling episode (which I really wish I could link to because it was absolutely brilliant, sadly, it is now gone).

This does not actually appear to be the case. Rather the issue is an entirely different one, and one which is much more complex than yet another blow in the ongoing culture war would have been.

When I heard about the copyright strike against Adult Wednesday Addams I immediately visited the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the rights-holder for the Addams Family, and the organization which had brought the copyright strike against Hunter’s series.

I located the contact information and wrote the following letter to them:

I’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family in pretty much every one of its iterations. And I was a huge fan of the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries, which was funny, intelligent and tonally in keeping with the character. As such, I’m distraught over the news that your foundation has forced its removal from Youtube.

While I understand that you are the copyright holder, and legally you are acting within your rights, I think in this case you are sorely mistaken to have taken this action.

I ask, as a fan, please do not obstruct this wonderful little webseries.


sincerely,

Simon McNeil

I didn’t expect any response, but I figured letter writing campaigns have been successful in the past, and the best way for them to be successful is for somebody to start writing letters.

However I was mistaken. A mere four hours after I wrote to the foundation, I received a response from Kevin Miserocchi, the Executive Director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

Here is what he said to me:

Dear Simon McNeil,

Thank you for your comments concerning Charles Addams and his Family and the suspension of Melissa Hunter’s on line series titled The Adult Wednesday Addams. Perhaps this will help to enlighten you about the situation that has caused this to happen rather than assuming we don’t care. Unfortunately for all involved it is not as simple as you may be thinking it is: The Moneyed Establishment versus The Artist – on the contrary.

We have a contract with MGM to produce a full-length animated feature film of The Addams Family® to look exactly as Charles Addams originally painted them. That contract prohibits anyone from portraying those characters in any media during the life of the contract.

Regardless of her talent or the breadth of her audience or the entertainment it gave you, the online series is a violation of that contract, something for which both Melissa Hunter and this Foundation could have been sued heavily. You can thank Melissa Hunter for not having understood the need to contact us so as to obtain a license to protect her show. Now it is too late and she will have to wait to resume her career as the Adult Wednesday Addams© until a year after the film has been released. Hopefully, she realizes that she already has an audience and merely needs to change the title of her show and her appearance.

With best regards,
H. Kevin Miserocchi, Executive Director

So what we have is instead what appears to be a pretty awful contract. Apparently, MGM has purchased an exclusive license to the Addams Family in all media. Furthermore, according to Mr. Miserocchi, the foundation is liable for enforcing copyright on behalf of the license holder (MGM) at risk of lawsuit.

That’s all rather odious.

Now I will note that the substantial snark in the last paragraph is not very nice; and comes off a bit disingenuous. If the contract is as strict as Miserocchi describes previously, it wouldn’t have mattered if Hunter had come to the Foundation first, they would have been required to say, “no.” And I rather doubt her webseries could provide sufficient revenue to beat out MGM if it came to a competitive bid. Whatever MGM paid the foundation for this license I’d suggest they invest some of that money into a PR coordinator because there would have been much more diplomatic ways to communicate the message above.

And here’s where things get complicated. Adult Wednesday Addams is a perfect example of a fanseries. It was created by a single person (or a very small team), it has a very limited cast, episodes are based on a straightforward simple premise, riffing on something the creator / star / director / writer obviously loves.

But videos on Youtube are monetized, and the Adult Wednesday Addams videos, based on the number of views they had before being taken down and the average payout for ad-views on Youtube, might have made as much as $13,770.

Now that’s not much money, but it’s not nothing. And it’s money made through the unlicensed use of a copyrighted piece of IP.

There are two main camps on this issue. On one hand, some people will say that copyright in this case is just established industry players cutting out small-scale creatives. Considering it’s posthumous IP (Charles Addams died in 1988) they’d probably argue for some flexibility. And besides, Adult Wednesday Addams wasn’t hurting anybody and certainly wasn’t stealing any bank from MGM.

The other camp would argue that what Hunter did was technically illegal, and that the Foundation acted both within their rights but also within their own best interest pulling the plug.

I come down somewhere in the middle. My personal opinion about copyright terms would, if it were magically converted into law, put the Addams Family in the public domain – just barely (I’m a proponent of lifetime + 20 years). And 13 grand (or less) is really not that much money. And honestly the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries wouldn’t be likely to impact MGM’s revenue in the slightest – the enforcement of such strict contract terms on the foundation by MGM seems a bit overreaching.

On the other hand, the state of the law in the United States is (very loosely speaking) lifetime + 70 years, and Adult Wednesday Addams was a potentially revenue-generating product making use of that IP. And there’s a reason that Fan Fiction writers don’t sell their stories.

So I do see both sides of the argument, and both have some merit. I think, ultimately, our current copyright climate is poorly designed to handle technologies like Youtube, which can automatically take a piece of fan fiction and convert it into a profit-generating product. This isn’t even the first time this year that we’ve seen this problem.

I think we need to reexamine copyright law within the bounds of new technology. Doubling down on penalties through things like the Digital Milennium Copyright Act hasn’t worked; the vast grey area between fan product and professional product demonstrates that clearly. But copyright is also important; as much as I might like creative commons licensing and as much as I might call for a shorter than average copyright period, I’m not against copyright as a concept.

But studios and rights-holders suing or threatening to sue fans for their enthusiasm over IP isn’t cool either.

I don’t think I have an answer for this one guys. But if you do, please let me know.