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BY Steven D. Greydanus
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is about — but not necessarily for — kids
If you prefer movie reviews about pleasant and uplifting films in which goodness is suitably rewarded, evil is suitably punished and children are not placed in excessive peril or disagreeable circumstances, you may wish to turn the page and read some other story.
While it is my duty to review Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, loosely based on the first three volumes of the best-selling series of books for intermediate readers, you might be happier not reading this review and never learning about the dreadful events that befall the three Baudelaire children in this film.
The books themselves, it must be acknowledged, are well written and easy to read, with finely constructed prose, a strong sense of style and an admirable attention to the nuances of words. The words themselves, regrettably, are seldom among the more pleasant in the English language. Book the Sixth, The Ersatz Elevator, for example, opens with a helpful discourse on the distinction between “nervous” and “anxious” — the latter of which is also often wrongly given for “eager,” a much more pleasant word that has little to do with how anyone would feel about most of the things that happen in these books.
Still, it can easily be said that these books are far superior liter-arily to that other wildly popular series of dark-themed stories for young readers, the Harry Potter stories. And, with 11 of a projected 13 volumes published so far, each 13 chapters long and none more than double the length of the 175-page first entry, A Series of Unfortunate Events also exhibits commendable consistency and literary self-discipline. This is in marked contrast to the Harry Potter books, which have increasingly become alarmingly tumid — the word “tumid” is related to “tumor” and here means “swollen” or “bloated,” as well as “badly in need of editing” — over time.
There is, however, no getting around the distressing nature of the aptly named Unfortunate Events, which have been written, illustrated, and bound in mock homage to the morally minded but often alarming novels of the Victorian era, and have been compared to such disturbing touchstones as Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens and Edward Gorey.
That the author, the pseudonymous Mr. Snicket, knows what he is about, there can be no doubt. The Baudelaire orphans' surname you may or may not recognize as an allusion to the influential 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, known among other things for his French translations of Edgar Allan Poe. But, when the very first scene introduces an old family friend of the Baudelaires who happens to be named Mr. Poe, few readers will fail to sense that the Baudelaire children have unpleasant times ahead.
In spite of what would seem their abysmal luck, the Baudelaire children's unfortunate story does have one bright spot: the Baudelaires themselves, who are as plucky and likeable in the midst of appalling circumstances as Nicholas Nickleby or Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Evil Count Olaf, the Baudelaires' archnemesis, may be — to refer once again to the Harry Potter books — nearly as nasty as Lord Voldemort and the Dursleys combined. But the Baudelaire children — inventive 14-year-old Violet, bookish 12-year-old Klaus and bitey infant Sunny — are much nicer and more admirable than Harry, with none of his reckless rule-breaking or other regrettable traits.
Although the series is not yet complete, there is reason to hope that the final chapter of the Baudelaire family's story will not end as darkly as the installments we have so far seen. When I speak of their final chapter ending, I am, naturally, speaking in a purely literary sense.
Those of you who have persevered with this review will presumably now want to know how the film, directed by Brad Silberling, measures up to the books. The answer is that it is — in a phrase expounded upon at some length at the outset of chapter three of The Ersatz Elevator — a mixed bag.
A hyper-cheery, abruptly aborted animated prologue, vividly establishing what will not be the tone of this film, is rather inspired. And the book's unsettling style is well served by such Snickety lines as “This is an excellent opportunity to walk out of the theater, living room or airplane where this film is being shown” and “I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted.” The spirit of the books lives, too, in the semi-Victorian, semi-Gothic production and costume design, from Violet's elegant dresses to the astonishing vision of the clifftop house on Lake Lachrymose.
There is, however, no getting around the fact that fans of the books are bound to feel shortchanged by the filmmakers' decision to mix and match scattered events from the first three volumes rather than trying to follow the stories in order. If the first two Potter films went overboard trying to cram in every detail of the books, Unfortunate Events barely skims the surface, with book one, The Bad Beginning, faring the best and book two, The Reptile Room, the worst. One suspects the project might have fared better as a miniseries of 13 one-hour movies, each devoted to one book — especially if they had waited until end of the story was actually in place.
In a star-studded cast headlined by Jim Carrey as the nefarious Count Olaf, it is worth mentioning that young Emily Browning makes a fine Violet and Liam Aiken is well cast as Klaus. Twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman, who share the role of infant Sunny, are too young for much to be said about their joint performance, but they have the requisite cuteness and babble suitably. The books' conceit of attributing meaningful propositions to Sunny's baby talk is cleverly paralleled by the use of subtitles, though unfortunately the “lines” Sunny is given frequently amount to insulting one-liners, as if she were a miniature Don Rickles (“She's the mayor of crazy town”). It is due principally to Sunny's subtitles that the MPAA, in rating the film PG, noted “brief language” (“What a schmuck”; “Bite me”).
Because Olaf is an actor as well as a count, and spends much of the series adopting various disguises and identities to try to get at the Baudelaire children (and ultimately at their vast but inaccessible inheritance), Carrey's penchant for zany caricatures actually serves the story, and he succeeds in making about as much sense of the character of Olaf as any actor could. The film softens the count's menace with comedy, and attempts to eke out some sentimental uplift in a third-act tangent without abandoning the grim ending that I regret to say is required by the story to date.
Though not without flaws, the film manages to be a reasonably entertaining take on a series of unfortunate events that I admit I now want to follow with the Baudelaires to the end.
Content advisory: Various unfortunate events involving children in perilous and disagreeable circumstances; brief crude language.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.