Not all children’s movies have to be bright and cheerful with jolly characters and happy endings. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is anything but cheerful and jolly, but the same darkness that provides its unsettling edge also makes it a delightfully enchanting movie for kids of all ages, even the grown up variety. It’s also the kind of affair that draws the best actors out to play. With names like Meryl Streep attached and a quirky list of cameos ranging from Cedric the Entertainer to Jennifer Coolidge to the AFLAC Duck, you can expect something captivating around every twisted turn.
The Baudelaire children are a clever trio, each with their own particular talents and sensibilities. The eldest, Violet (Emily Browning), is a resourceful and brilliant little girl with a gift for inventing impromptu gadgetry. Her younger brother Claus (Liam Aiken) is an avid bookworm with a knack for retaining each and every odd ball fact he reads. Finally there’s little Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) who, despite not quite being able to speak, has found other uses for her four tiny teeth by biting into whatever crosses her curiosity.
The children’s lives are turned upside down when a sudden and mysterious fire destroys their home, killing their parents, who also happened to leave behind a small fortune for the children to inherit when they come of age. Things get worse when it turns out the Baudelaire’s new guardian will be their “beloved” Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a complete stranger who is really only interested in the children’s money.
Olaf and his faithfully criminal theatre troupe set out to do whatever is necessary to relieve the children of their wealth, even if it means killing them. The resourceful Baudelaire orphans must stick together and use every talent they have to outwit the Count and his minions, and more importantly, solve the mystery of their parent’s death.
Looking and feeling very Tim Burton-esque, A Series of Unfortunate Events is chock full of weird and wonderful visuals and imagery. The movie is bursting at the seams with special effects, but each one is precisely blended into the story-telling. Director Brad Silberling cut his teeth on special effects with his first ever feature film Casper, but with this movie he has proved himself a master in the craft.
For the most part, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect cast. Emily Browning and Liam Aiken are absolutely superb as the elder children. They demonstrate an understanding of the dark mood of the story and carry it flawlessly from start to finish. Meryl Streep and Billy Connoly all but steal from the show from the children with their incredible turns as neurotic Aunt Josephine and eccentric Uncle Monty. Fortunately, knowing their place in the film, they play their supporting roles perfectly, keeping the story on track. That’s more than can be said for certain other members of the cast.
The only black mark on this film is the presence of Jim Carrey. As Count Olaf, an actor who dons different disguises throughout the movie in attempts to thieve from or kill the orphans, this was a chance for Carrey to shine as a brilliant villain. Instead, like most of his other films, he spends the entire time reviving odd bits of his character sketch alter egos from the glory days of “In Living Color” while manically upstaging everyone else in the show with his loopy antics. The title ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ might as well be referring to Carrey’s performances throughout the movie.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the first three books in Lemony Snicket’s series about the Baudelaire orphans. Given that there are as many as ten more books out there in the series, sequels are all but inevitable. Having never read them myself, I was still enthralled with the story on film. Children who are faithful fans of the books will likely have plenty to say about the many ways the film varied from the texts, but for any of them who might be complaining I can only offer this condolence: welcome to the real world. Movies rarely stick to the book letter for letter, but that can often be a good thing. It’s certainly the case with A Series of Unfortunate Events. Missing this movie would be a very unfortunate thing indeed.