Review: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  December 17, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

Being a Baudelaire child is an interesting experience. The three siblings all excel in various areas; eldest Violet (Emily Browning) is a top young inventor, middle child Klaus (Liam Aiken) posseses a photographic memory and the ability to retain all the information from each and every one of the many books he's read, and youngest Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) has a love of biting onto just about every object she sees. All three are loved and encouraged by their parents, until one day a mysterious fire takes the lives of the parents and consumes their once majestic and beautiful home. Orphaned at such a young age, the children fall into the care of Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), a banker and executor of the Baudelaire will, who quickly turns them over to their closet relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Well, not their closest relative in the sense that they know him, but more so in that he only lives 39 blocks away from their old residence. Upon their arrival, Olaf " an actor by trade " puts them to work cleaning and scrubbing and doing just about every little thing that pops into his head. It's clear that he wants nothing to do with the young children and only wants access to the vast fortune left to young Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, which will be accessible on the day of Violet's 18th birthday or in the event of their untimely death. Learning this, Olaf begins to plot their demise, but before he can do that successfully (and oh how he does try) he loses guardianship. The orphans are then passed to Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a snake expert who plans to take them on a expedition to Peru, and finally to Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a woman who is petrified of realtors and gets her only joy in life from using proper grammar. However, the children are never safe as Olaf is continuously plotting to regain custody and get access to the large sum of money.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is Paramount Pictures' entry into the ever competitive holiday movie season, where family-oriented fare dominates and studio heavyweights battle it out for top box office spot. Based upon the first three novels in Daniel Handler's fan favorite series of children books, A Series of Unfortunate Events combines "The Bad Beginning", "The Reptile Room", and "The Big Window" into one 108-minute-long motion picture. Being that I'm not familiar with the books, I can't tell you how faithful the screen adaptation is, but from what I can gather from watching the events transpire on screen, if they needed three books to tell the story present in this one film then one of two things happened " there's a lot missing from the books or not enough happens in one book to make a decent motion picture. Director Brad Silberling culls events from three novels just fine, but the film does have a very episodic feel to it and one can tell that a series of events was strung together to come up with something of feature length. According to discussions with other film critics who had a working knowledge of the books, some events may have been shifted around, including the film's climax " which apparently occurs at the end of the first book but has been moved to the end of the story for cinematic purposes. Although Silberling has done a good job at keeping the flow moving and connecting the three main adventures into one tale, there lacks a cohesiveness and overall continuing plot line when it comes to some of the questions and story threads, like the mysterious spyglass that all the Baudelaires' guardians seem to have in their possession. Sure, this leaves material for a potential (and likely) sequel, however with 11 other "Snicket" books in print and more to come, perhaps a little more material could have been present in this first chapter of the film series.

My problem with the episodic nature and lack of an overall strong storyline that feels magical and complete aside, there is a lot to like about Silberling's approach to the material. From the opening moments of the film where Jude Law's narration warns us about the dark and unpleasant series of events to follow, to the stylistic and interesting choices made, this is a kids' movie with some edge to it. The overall look is bleak and unwelcoming, much like the last Harry Potter feature, and there's no sugarcoating applied to the topics covered. Child abandonment, arson, and murder are just a few of the many adult themes made accessible to younger audiences. Speaking to the stylistic approach Silberling takes, there are many soft focus shots splattered at almost every corner. At first, I thought there was a problem with the presentation as the film's focus was less than stellar at the screening I caught. However, I soon realized that objects were supposed to be a bit fuzzy, allowing you to concentrate on the areas that were more defined. Effectively, the film has sort of a dark gothic look to it, not unlike something you might find in a Tim Burton film. This worked well for me once I was able to get past the hazy appearance, which I was all set to blame on a projector problem or my lack of sleep from having flown in from a week-long vacation the previous night.

From a pure acting perspective, there is some good work done here as well. Jim Carrey pulls a Tom Hanks and appears in three different roles. Well, I guess that's not entirely true, since he's Count Olaf in disguise in two of them. Carrey once again shows his extreme talent in creating unique characters that manage to make you laugh at every turn. He's excellent as the menacing and evil Count Olaf, as well as gut-bustingly funny as a last-minute replacement zoologist that tries to capture the children. His third disguise, that of a Sea Captain out to win a woman's heart, is also another memorable character. It's hard to imagine someone else being as good as Carrey in the part. As good as Jim Carrey is in the film, the real scene stealer is the young Hoffman twins, Kara and Shelby, as Sunny the biter. Perhaps it's the result of cleaver editing and writing, but every time Sunny says something in baby speak (and is subtitled on screen in english) I burst into laughter along with the rest of the audience. The lines accompanied by the cutest of the children really gives the film a bit of a kick. Emily Browning is also strong as Violet, while Liam Aiken (Good Boy) does okay work as Klaus, but still can't shake that dreadful talking dog film from my memory. Ensemble players Catherine O'Hara, Luis Guzman, and Timothy Spall contribute nicely in their small parts, while Meryl Streep gives a much lighter performance than her turn as a controlling mother in this past summer's remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Also worth mentioning is Jude Law and his narration and portrayal of the title character Lemony Snicket. Although Law is never visually seen on screen (only in silhouette), he does add a lot to the feature even though he's been everywhere in recent months and is a bit overexposed of late.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fun little motion picture that, while it does have its fair share of problems in terms of a storyline that really doesn't go anywhere, still manages to do more right than it does wrong. It's a slightly twisted and darker tale than I was expecting, and some moments may be frightening for younger children. Although I don't expect it to do Harry Potter-type business, I expect that it should do quite well at the box office given its fanbase from the novels, that while not as mainstream-leaning or as well-known as that little wizard, is said by all reports to be quite large. Jim Carrey gets another chance to do what he does well, and that's create over-the-top and larger-than-life characters. One could do much worse this holiday season than this series of unfortunate events. Certainly not an Oscar-calibre film, it's more a fun distraction from the world around us.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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