NEW YORK — EVEN though ``The Addams Family'' was based on popular Charles Addams cartoons and a long-running TV show, nobody expected it to be such a huge hit on the wide theatrical screen.
Once it did become a smash, of course, the reasons were plain to anyone with 20-20 hindsight. Thanks to director Barry Sonnenfeld, it had a funny premise, a clever screenplay, and a cinematic style that blended sardonic humor with rich images.
And the cast was sensational, bouncing the self-mocking elegance of Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston off the manic exuberance of Christopher Lloyd and the deadpan goofiness of the story itself.
The sequel, ``Addams Family Values,'' is better. As smartly produced and smoothly directed as the original, it has a more bitingly satirical plot and a steadier stream of laugh-out-loud dialogue. The cast has been improved, with the addition of Joan Cusack as a golddigger out to marry Fester Addams, arguably the creepiest member of the clan.
But the story begins with the birth of a new addition to the Addams household: an adorable baby boy with Morticia's eyes and Gomez's mustache.
His older siblings, Wednesday and Pugsley, show the jealousy of youngsters with a new rival for their parents' affection - and being the most morbid kids in moviedom, they find ingenious ways of expressing that jealousy. But they eventually accept the little tyke and shift their attention to a more pressing matter: dealing with duplicitous Debbie, the designing woman who's determined to marry Fester and then murder him for his money.
It's a surprising twist when the movie's best scenes take place at a summer camp, where Wednesday and Pugsley - who aren't exactly the summer-camp type - are sent by their parents as a result of Debbie's trickery.
Camp Chippewa is a relentlessly rah-rah place, which drives the Addams kids crazy, especially when their lack of happy-camper spirit gets them exiled to the ``harmony hut,'' where they're bludgeoned into cheerfulness by a regimen of Disney videos and Partridge Family albums. There's nothing more funny or far-fetched in the movie than Wednesday twisting her grim little face into a tortured smile so the camp directors will free her from this torment.
Christina Ricci's portrayal of Wednesday, inventive and uproarious in scene after scene, marks her as one of the most gifted young comic actresses in films today. Top marks also go to Cusack for her deliciously weird performance as Fester's Nemesis. Julia and Huston provide their usual touch of class, although the best lines and scenes go to other members of the cast, and Lloyd is awhirl with energy as the love-struck Fester.
Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski lead the supporting players as Camp Chippewa's fearless leaders, and Carol Kane is back as the oldest (living) member of the Addams family. Donald Peterman did the consistently handsome cinematography, and Ken Adams concocted the amusingly dank production design.
Sonnenfeld directed from Paul Rudnick's finely tuned screenplay. The season isn't likely to see a more creatively crafted comedy.
* ``Addams Family Values'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains morbid humor as well as sexual innuendo and cartoonish violence.