(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
Harry Potter’s more menacing children’s fantasy rival, Daniel Handler’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” novels (written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) weave fantastic spookiness and mortal danger into their stories of adolescent moxie and resourcefulness. Thankfully, Brad Silberling’s savorily sinister Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – adapted from three of Handler’s books (“The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room,” and “The Wide Window”) – exudes the whimsical charm and imagination of its source material, charting the oh-so-unfortunate story of the three Baudelaire orphans as they attempt to escape the clutches of their evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a villain intent on offing the tykes so he can inherit their recently deceased parents’ fortune. Delightfully clever if perhaps a tad too terrifying for its tween target audience, it’s a phantasmagoric family film with both bite and heart.
Silberling’s film actually begins as another – The Littlest Elf, a jolly stop-motion fairy tale that’s rudely interrupted by author (and narrator) Lemony Snicket (Jude Law), who informs us that the forthcoming saga will provide none of the cheery comfort peddled by most kid-oriented cinematic confections. Yet as the storyteller’s yarn unfolds, it becomes clear that underneath Lemony Snicket’s ominous shroud of bizarre creatures and outlandish environments is a triumphant tale of resilient familial bonds and youthful bravery, intelligence and ingenuity. The Baudelaire children – inventor Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), and bite-happy Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) – are at once innocent kids wounded by the untimely death of their parents (in a suspicious fire) and yet impressively brave and quick-witted. First sent to live with Count Olaf before relocating to the home of their reptile-loving Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and, later, their paranoid Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), the Baudelaires tackle tragedy and Olaf’s machinations with cunning and courage, unafraid to confront the often-nasty world with firm resolve.
As the fiendish, frequently disguised Count Olaf, Jim Carrey (wearing a prosthetic nose and white chin fuzz) is unfortunately allowed to indulge in unbridled manic shenanigans, though Silberling provides temporary respites from the rubbery comedian’s overbearing zaniness by limiting Carrey’s screen time in favor of the exceptional Browning and Aiken. Less shrewd is the director’s decision to have the pre-verbal Sunny’s unintelligible speech translated via subtitles (most of which turn out to be horridly lame, slang-heavy punchlines that don’t jibe with the film’s creepy tone). And it’s difficult to ignore the fact that this episodic film regularly feels like three distinct stories uncomfortably, and inelegantly, grafted together. Yet with its stunning J.K. Rowling-meets-Tim Burton production design and cinematography (courtesy of Rick Heinrichs and Emmanuel Lubezki, respectively), Lemony Snicket ultimately turns out to be a far from unfortunate holiday surprise.