It’s not always something people want to admit, but children like a little bit of darkness in their entertainment. There’s a reason why Grimm’s Fairy Tales have remained popular and why The Lion King is more enduring than The Fox and the Hound. The Harry Potter books further prove that a little bit of scary is what kids want. Another series of books that has resonated with young readers is the Lemony Snicket series. Three of its entries have been adapted for the big screen with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The only movie to compare this to in terms of look and style of humor is The Addams Family; both show an ability to very gently approach the macabre.
The film begins quite cleverly with narration by writer Lemony Snicket (Jude Law), who is only ever seen in shadow. He gravely informs us that the story he is about to tell is an awful one; Snicket even implores those without a taste for such things to walk out and find a cheerier movie at the multiplex. He then weaves a tale about the Baudelaire children – 14-year inventor Violet (Emily Browning), her bookworm brother Klaus (Liam Aiken), and infant Sunny, who likes to bite things. The Baudelaire parents were killed in a mysterious fire that left the children homeless orphans.
A social worker – Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) – puts them in the custody of their “closest relative” who does not seem to be closely related at all. He is Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a creepy, narcissistic performer who runs an acting troupe filled with equally creepy hangers-on. Olaf has no real interest in the children; he only wants the fortune their parents left behind. The only way to get it is for them to die, so he conveniently parks his car on the railroad tracks and locks them inside. They manage to escape and are placed with their uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a snake expert and all-around nice guy. But Count Olaf shows up in disguise and sabotages the new foster placement from inside.
Finally, the children end up with Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). She lives in a house whose front door is on the edge of a cliff, with everything else hanging in midair behind it. Like Monty, Aunt Josephine has good intentions for the children, even if she is afraid of everything (including realtors). Once again, Olaf shows up in disguise, this time as a peglegged sailor who woos the nervous Josephine. It becomes clear that Olaf will not rest until the children are dead and he has control of the family fortune. Using their combined skills, the Baudelaire kids decide to stop him once and for all.
In addition to the death of the parents and the “relative” who wants to kill the children, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events also features an attack by flesh-eating leeches and a gigantic snake (whose strike scared the bejeepers out of me and everyone else in the theater). Then there’s the creepy house on the cliff, which ultimately provides one of my favorite scenes of the year as it crumbles while the children attempt to escape it. That’s a lot of horrific stuff, but the film won’t likely terrify anyone but the very youngest of audience members. Director Brad Silberling (City of Angels) finds a good tone for the picture, injecting enough humor to offset the subject matter while still dealing with the central theme, which is the resiliency of children. Kids sometimes have to face difficult and unpleasant things in the world, but they also have an innate strength that gets them through. My hunch, not having read the books, is that this theme is what makes them resonate so much with young readers.
It doesn’t hurt to have Jim Carrey in the lead role. His humor helps a lot of the darkness go down more smoothly. Although he only plays one character, he gets to assume different disguises and accents. This must have seemed like a chance for him to do what Peter Sellers did in Dr. Strangelove. Carrey isn’t as brilliant as Sellers was in that film, but he is certainly very funny. So is Meryl Streep, doing a different kind of part than she usually plays and clearly having a ball doing it. Perhaps the best performances come from the younger actors. Liam Aiken and Emily Browning provide an emotional center for the story. It would have been easy to cast generic child actors, but by casting kids with genuine talent, we more easily become invested in the action.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a joy to look at. Imagination and creativity pop from every single frame. The visual style is so vivid that we can easily become lost in this dark world of mystery and misery. It’s crucial for a film of this kind to engage us in this way because if it doesn’t, we are more likely to mentally check out. I sometimes get bored with special effects and digital worlds because they can start to look similar after a while. This one seemed very unique to me. It felt like the kind of place where unexpected things would occur.
What the movie lacks is a proper sense of pacing. At times it seems like it is in a rush to get on to the next thing. As a result, there are things we would like to see a lot more of but never do. One example is Uncle Monty. This character is introduced and then quickly tossed aside. There were certain story elements – such as this one – that should have been developed to a greater degree. The film has lots of plot, but it lacks the depth and texture that are so prominent in, say, the Harry Potter films.
Otherwise, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is pure fun. Make sure you stick around for the end credits, which are done in a moody animation style that had me mesmerized. End credits rarely add anything to a movie (unless it’s a bad one in which case they bring a sigh of relief). These are the perfect coda to an entertaining movie with just the right amount of darkness to enthrall kids without worrying their parents.
( out of four)
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is rated PG for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.
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