Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

A quality kiddy-oriented movie that doesn't take it's audience for granted? How fortunate!

Released in 2004, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 22 Dec 2004 by Scott Morris
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The mere fact that you can read English means that by laws of averages you've most likely read a Harry Potter book, either at the insistence of your offspring or on a misguided recommendation from one of the pod people that have been suckered into the series. A little known fact about Rowling's series of meanderingly wordy wizardly nonsense it that the pages are infused with a mind altering substance capable of convincing adults that the competent juvenile fiction they're reading is in some way classic literature, despite it being not so much sub-J.R.R. Tolkien as sub-David Eddings. The point of all this misplaced inflammatory ranting, such as it is, is to say that any recommendation to take a butchers at Daniel Handler's series of novels chronicling the Baudelaire orphans' plight fell on deaf ears. Given my similarly baffled reaction to the insanely successful movie adaptations of the Potter franchise you'll have to forgive my apathy over Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, sourced from the first three novels in the series.

Which is perhaps why it's so surprising to find that it's such a mature and captivating piece of work, a dark fairy tale that doesn't talk down to the kids or treat them as little more than marketing opportunities. As the chronicler and narrator of the story Lemony Snicket (the voice, and possibly shadowy outline of Jude Law) makes no bones about telling us, this is no story about a Happy Little Elf. Right of the bat the Baudelaire children are informed of a most unfortunate event - their parents have perished in a fire which destroyed their mansion. Executor of the Baudelaire estate Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) is instructed to take eldest daughter and brilliant inventor Voilet (Emily Browning), voracious reader Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman sharing the load), a toddler with a vicious bite and deliver them to their closest relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).

Yeah, yeah, Jim Carrey. We know what you're thinking, the rubber faced goon who's chewed his way through the scenery of Ace Ventura, The Grinch What Done Nicked Christmas Guv'nor and Bruce Almighty. However, as Olaf is an actor by trade, albeit a hamtasticly awful one which for once gives some narrative imperative for his trademarked gurning. The orphans suffer a ghastly experience at Olaf's hands, treated as slave labour until his true plans for the kids are revealed. With the children's substantial inheritance tied up in trust, the only way for Olaf to get his hands on the dough-ray-me is to bump the kids off.

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Foiled by Violet's ingenuity, Klaus' knowledge and Sunny's fearsome teeth, the kids are sent off for boarding with a variety of quirky distant relatives. Such is the conceit of the series of novels, and the first in what's liable to become A Series Of Unfortunate Films borrows from the first three books. Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) is a kindly soul with a lot of reptiles where the kids could find some small solace, until Olaf harnesses his acting skills to show up as Monty's new lab assistant with unfortunate results.

Sent off to their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) on the gloomy Lake Lachrymose, a woman with a fear of near enough everything and a back story to justify it it's not long before Olaf shows up as Capt'n Sham, a scurvy dog owin' many a characterisation to The Simpsons' Sea Capt'n. Y'arrrr. The results are unfortunate, although Klaus is starting to notice some interesting facts and connections in the lives of these people that might bear some relation to the death of their parents...

The fear going into Lemony Snicket Episode One: The Phantom Menace was that it would devolve into the Yet Another Jim Carrey Vehicle, his popular brand of buffoonery taking centre stage and everything else shuffling to one side. While he's certainly prominent it's a well judged performance on his and director Brad Silberling's part, his atrocious acting giving just the appropriate touch of levity make the subject matter at once more palatable on initial viewing and actually add another layer, more sinister strata on reflection.

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Law's linking narrations may prove to contain a smidgen too many Sustained Ominous Tones and Thematic Content, but everyone else plays a blinder. Even Meryl Streep. Emily Browning (who incidentally also paired up with Connolly in The Man Who Sued God) gives an at times touching performance, Liam Aiken handles the emotion and tone of the piece well and the sisters Hoffman are as cute as particularly cute buttons.

Perhaps the biggest plaudits must be aimed in the general direction of Silberling, screenwriter Robert Gordon (and Daniel Handler's source material, obviously) and the studio for having the grapefruits to present a movie aimed at kids that deals with mature and potentially distressing subject matter without ever talking down to the target audience. In a market glutted with patronising, lightweight to the point of being flyaway movies intended for the same audience (see Sleepover, What A Girl Wants and 13 Going on 30) something with the bravery to credit kids with a few smarts has to be applauded, as they're few and far between. Perhaps the last one being Holes, although seeing as that's over a year old I hope I'm just suffering a hole in my memory. Hohoho.

Not content with taking a risk with the content, Paramount were happy enough to back that up with wads and wads of hard cash. The production of few movies involve the creation of a small artificial lake in a one and a half acre water tank, replete with small village. Uncle Monty's mansion cum reptile house is a lush, glorious creation and the overall effect of the film is little less than stunning. Without wanting to resort too heavily to Potter-bashing, compare HP & the Philosophic Sorcerer's Stone to this movie and it shows up what a cut rate, shoddy, complacent and insulting job they executed. Given that the license was never in any doubt of a massive box office the effects and sets are unjustifiably done on the cheap, because hey, it's only kids, right? What do they know? They deserve better, and Lemony Snicket delivers, never taking it's audience for granted.

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Enjoyable and lavish a production as it is, there's perhaps a certain something missing. Siberling and his team have done a good job in capturing a fairy story feel to it that for want of a better term is Burton-esque, but you can't help but imagine what Tim Burton might have done had he got his hands on it. Given how well Big Fish turned out with a comparatively weak narrative there's the off chance this could have been a masterwork

That said, it could have went Planet of the Apes on us, and we could sit and 'what if' until the cows came home. At least we have these hatched chickens to count, and fine specimens they are indeed. How many stories have you seen lately that are compelling, touching, entertaining and teach kids about mortality and man's inhumanity to man at the same time? The evil here isn't some faceless wizard (or even a lidless eye, come to think of it), but greed and the darkness of the soul. Problems aren't solved by wands and spells but by application of knowledge, courage, self-belief and love in your family. Given the contents you might not think it, but Lemony Snicket ends up capturing the spirit and message of Christmas better than anything released in the last few decades.

Recommended viewing over the yuletide period no matter what age category you fall into, and hopefully the mildly frosty reception received for all movies generally this Chrimble won't deprive us of Lemony Snicket Two: Electric Boogaloo.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Brad Silberling
Cast list:
Jim Carrey (Count Olaf)
Emily Browning (Violet Baudelaire)
Liam Aiken (Klaus Baudelaire)
Kara Hoffman (Sunny Baudelaire)
Shelby Hoffman (Sunny Baudelaire)
Meryl Streep (Aunt Josephine)
Jude Law (Lemony Snicket)
Timothy Spall (Mr. Poe)
Billy Connolly (Uncle Monty)