A Dreadful Spectacle
It’s putting it mildly to say Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is different. The film’s uniqueness announces itself the second the film starts -- when a short animated sequence stops momentarily with the warning, “If you want to see a cute, funny film go to theater two. This movie is an extremely unpleasant story about the Baudelaire siblings and how they lead lives filled with misery and woe.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is an adaptation of author Lemony Snicket’s highly successful children’s books, each one capturing a stylized classic look and feel as well as a clever subversive humor. Part of the wit about the film comes from the writing which abounds with Lemony Snicket’s own reverse psychology of warning about doom and gloom. Thus even the description “a dreadful spectacle” translates to mean “It will stir the imagination of the entire family as it shatters the mold of adventure stories and evokes the magic of truly classic entertainment.”
When Klaus (Liam Aiken), Violet (Emily Browning) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) Baudelaire learn their parents have just been killed in a fire that destroyed their home, they have no idea what their future holds. They know of no other relatives, so young teens Klaus and Violet worry how they will take care of their baby sister, Sunny.
The children are first sent to live with their long-lost relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). He’s a classic villain who hates the kids and wants to kill them in order to inherit their money. Carrey, with his ability to be even more outrageous every time he’s on screen, is perfect for this role. You hate Count Olaf, yet every scene draws you in with the same fear and excitement as opening a box full of vipers -- of which, incidentally, there are plenty in this film.
When the kids escape several attempts on their life by the Count, they’re taken to Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who lives in a dark and brooding house on stilts over the water. Aunt Josephine is a wacky woman who fears everything in life except words. She wants to do right by the kids, but when Count Olaf shows up in disguise, she’s so hungry for male attention -- since her husband was eaten by leeches -- she ignores the children’s warnings that he’s really Olaf and will do them all harm. Streep can perform any role to perfection, and her “Aunt Josephine” sugar coats this sour apple. She’s comical, glib and gorgeous, even as a zany widow.
The child actors faced an incredible challenge in going up against the talents of Carrey and Streep. They had to pull their own roles, and they handled it quite well. Liam Aiken conveys Klaus’s need to understand what happened to his family with an understated but effective spirit. Emily Browning adeptly reveals Violet’s inventive abilities, mothering nature and resilience at not succumbing to Olaf’s cruel treatments. As the biting and gibberish-speaking Sunny, the Hoffman twins practically steal of all Carrey’s thunder in the laugh department.
Director Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile) delivers the goods in terms of the film’s themes of surprise and woefulness. And Oscar-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow) has created a world where terrible things happen, but oddly there’s almost a beauty to the darkness. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a two-time Oscar nominee (Sleepy Hollow and The Little Princess ) for his ability to light a scene and bring an emotional intensity to the setting, displays that gift again in this movie.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, may not be for very young kids. Older children are probably already familiar with the books, but adults are in for some surprises, especially those who expect a traditional children’s movie. However, as Lemony Snicket states, “You should buy every movie ticket available and then not go see the film!”
(Released by DreamWorks/Paramount Pictures and rated “PG” for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language.)
Read Diana Saenger's reviews of classic movies at http://classicfilm.about.com.