By Pete Vonder Haar | December 19, 2004

Minor Spoilers Ahead

When it comes to creepy locales and gloomy protagonists in children’s literature, it’s hard to beat the Brits, and the popular series of books authored by one “Lemony Snicket” (author Daniel Handler) have offered a nice change from the rose-colored optimism that infects so much of the reading material American children are forced to grow up with these days. As a recent New York Times article on the subject says, a little horror is often good for kids, and while it may not fully prepare them for the spirit-crushing onset of adulthood, hopefully they won’t grow up thinking the good guys always win and virtue always triumphs.

Taken from that perspective, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” – which combines the plots from the first three books in Handler’s series – is something of a mixed bag. It’s darker than most similarly themed fare (not a terribly difficult proposition, admittedly), but stops short of truly capturing the spirit of Handler’s world. The end result still looks good and offers a decent number of laughs, but is not the work of dark comedy many people were anticipating.

The movie starts well, snuffing out the parents of the Baudelaire children in a mysterious fire within minutes of the opening credits. The three new orphans: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (*snicker*) are informed by the executor of their parents’ will that they are to be sent to live with their mysterious uncle, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Olaf, of course, has designs on the Baudelaire fortune, and engineers a number of schemes to bump the kids off.

The setting for “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a sort of parallel to Victorian England, albeit an England suffused with a healthy dose of Goth and powered by 1950s technology. Director Brad Silberling gives the film an appropriately gloomy ambience (and with a much defter touch than his earlier efforts on movies like “Casper” and “City of Angels” may have led us to believe he was capable of), recalling the works of Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson. Fortunately, he manages this without letting locales like the Reptile Room and Lake Lachrymose get too Burton-esque. As an alternate universe, it isn’t so much Bizarro as it is Slightly Off.

Considering the amount of screen time the actors portraying the Baudelaire children have, and the personalities they’re expected to share it with (Carrey, Meryl Streep), they handle themselves quite well. Emily Browning’s Violet is a capable and relatively unflappable young heroine, and Liam Aiken carries himself well as Klaus, even if he sometimes comes across as a bit stiff. The youngest, Sunny, threatens to push the boundaries of acceptable cuteness at times, but what do you expect? She’s a frigging baby.

The actor that seems most out of place, unsurprisingly, is Jim Carrey. For the film’s introduction, Silberling sets up this morose premise, then Carrey shows up to ruin everybody’s fun, kind of like Michael Powell at the Super Bowl. It isn’t that he does a bad job, exactly; Olaf may actually be one of the more reserved characters Carrey’s played in recent memory, but no director has ever been 100% successful in suppressing his urge to mug (when the role in question isn’t one of Carrey’s desperate Oscar bids, that is). As fun as it might be to watch the man struggling to restrain himself, he never projects any real menace…Count Olaf just isn’t that scary. There’s never any sense that the children are really that frightened of him, beyond their initial encounter, nor is there any real doubt that the Baudelaires will get the last laugh.

The AFLAC duck also has an annoying (if mercifully short) scene during the Lake Lachrymose segment. Product placement is rarely seamless, and can be especially problematic in Snicket’s world, where there are no recognizable corporate brands. The inclusion of that stupid duck, however, is one of the more egregious examples of the phenomenon in recent memory.

Having said all that, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is still successful in kicking off a largely amusing and visually engaging franchise. Next time around, however, Silberling and company should consider putting the brakes on the cutesy stuff and maybe, just maybe, securing another actor for the role of Count Olaf. What’s John Malkovich up to these days?

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