We’re now at the midway point of summer, and whether you’re the type of person who desperately wants to hold onto every warm day we have left or the type of person who has already moved into countdown mode for the fall, 1993’s Addams Family Values makes for a great watch this time of year. You may well be surprised if you haven’t seen it, assuming that it definitely skews more Halloween, and it mostly does. The Addams Family inherently exists in a state of perpetual autumn, but the storyline of this delightfully macabre film actually plays out during the summer. (It seems this might also be the case for the upcoming sequel to 2019’s animated The Addams Family, if the posters and trailer are any indication.)
The overall plot is relatively straightforward: Villainous conwoman Debbie Jellinsky targets rich bachelor Fester Addams in hopes that she can do what she’s done to other men many times before and marry him, then kill him to get his fortune. In order to get her foot in the door, Debbie pretends to be a nanny and is employed to take care of new Addams baby Pubert, but Wednesday figures out what Debbie’s true motives are almost immediately. To get the kids out of the way and prevent them from ratting her out, Debbie convinces Morticia and Gomez that Wednesday and Pugsley desperately want to go to a sleep away summer camp.
Enter Camp Chippewa. It’s clear right away that the Addams kids are in for quite the summer. You won’t find a group less creepy, kooky, mysterious, or spooky than the other campers and their parents.
Unsurprisingly, a fancy camp designed for “privileged young adults” that’s run by white people who gave it a Native American name turns out to be a racist, elitist, ableist, and overall terrible place. Husband and wife team Gary Granger and Becky Martin-Granger want their campers “to learn, to grow, and to just plain have fun” and jump and clap as Gary adds, “‘Cause that’s what being privileged is all about!’”
Isn’t it just, Gary.
But it turns out that there’s only one way to learn, grow, and have fun at Camp Chippewa. Swimming (Wednesday won’t get in the water), archery (Pugsley shoots a Bald Eagle), and other athletic pursuits seem to be all that’s available, with no activities for the kids who don’t like those kinds of things. Joel Glicker is punished for reading a book. The Grangers’ solution is not to find something that each child at their camp can find fulfillment in, it’s to lock anyone who veers from their norm into a tiny cabin called the Harmony Hut and force them to watch cheerful movies and TV shows until they come around to the Chippewa way of things. There’s even an acoustic guitar ambush complete with a rendition of “Kumbaya, My Lord” at one point. Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel are made an example of for the other campers: anyone who’s not like everyone else needs to change.
That’s not the Addams Family way. Getting pushback for being who they are isn’t new for this family, but without the ability to go back to their cobwebby home, sit around the table, and enjoy a bowl of Grandmama’s latest tentacle-y treat, Wednesday and Pugsley are stranded and completely on their own. Luckily, the Addamses are ever confident and comfortable with who they are, and even take Joel under their spooky little wings. They endure the attempted brainwashing about what it means to be normal, and Wednesday is able to fool the Grangers into thinking it worked by promising that she wants to be “perky” and flashing a big toothy grin. Any woman who’s been told that she’d look so much prettier if she smiled more will recognize the maniacal rage in Wednesday’s eyes as she does so.
Speaking of maniacal rage! There’s one sequence in this movie that is remembered above all others: Gary’s Thanksgiving play at Camp Chippewa and Wednesday’s iconic speech about the holiday:
“We can not break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, and you will play golf, and eat hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They said do not trust the pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller. And for all of these reasons I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground.”
(That clip shows up on social media every year, and because of that Addams Family Values has been called a Thanksgiving movie too. I’m all for it. Basically, watch this movie all year round.)
Every single aspect of the play has the audience rooting for Wednesday with every word. Pretty blonde camper Amanda Buckman is cast in the lead role of the main Pilgrim, with her pretty blonde friends being cast as Pilgrims alongside her. Meanwhile, Wednesday is cast as Pocahontas because she’s seen as the perfect “brunette outcast,” and all the other Native Americans are played by the campers who the Grangers see as outcasts as well, like the children of color and those with disabilities, because “not everyone can be a star.” There’s also pervasive use of offensive terminology and costumes, because apparently Gary and Becky don’t do these things half way.
The story that Gary writes for the campers to perform in front of a sea of pastel clad parents is the whitewashed cotton candy version of the first Thanksgiving that has been pushed as the official party line for pretty much… forever. I know I wasn’t the only kid who made construction paper pilgrim hats and Native American headbands with feathers while my class heard about how nice it was that everyone came together to eat dinner and be friends.
A Turkey Named Brotherhood begins as envisioned: The Pilgrims are so smart and advanced, and must be patient with the primitive and uncivilized Native Americans, explains Sarah Miller. Our girl Wednesday isn’t having it. She delivers her first few lines as Pocahontas as written, but then breaks character, deviates from the script, and gives her fantastic rebuke. Mayhem ensues, fires are set, and the entire play is destroyed.
Wednesday and Pugsley break out at last, and rush home to try and help save Uncle Fester from Debbie’s murderous clutches, leaving a Camp Chippewa that will never be the same in their wake.
Turning a bad situation into an opportunity to learn the value of staying true to yourself and a chance to bust racist mythology at the same time? If only we could all have a summer so productive.