Perhaps it’s a symptom of unsteady times, but the increased popularity of horror films and the dark undercurrents that run through the latest children’s books and movies seem to suggest that audiences prefer their entertainment tempered with a healthy dose of the macabre and a pinch of distrust.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the latest children’s literary sensation to be translated to the screen, and it wears its morbid sense of humor on its sleeve. Clearly inspired by the wonderful and wicked Roald Dahl, this long-running (11 volumes to date) and highly successful series recounts the trials and travails of the Baudelaire orphans: MacGuyver-like inventor Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken) and toothy toddler Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman).
In a somewhat Dickensian world (à la Tim Burton) where oblivious adults ignore the warnings and wisdom of gifted children, the Baudelaires are tossed from one oddball guardian to another after their parents tragically die in a mysterious fire. Unfortunately for the orphans, the first of these parental custodians is the nefarious Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an evil ham of an actor with sinister designs on the Baudelaire family fortune.
Carrey brings his usual bombastic energy and shameless mugging to the character but, oddly enough, it’s appropriate here. The count is written as an egomaniacal method actor, after all. Donning various disguises, Olaf continually dislodges the waifs from whatever refuge they find, leaving them in ever-greater peril. It’s a solid conceit that plays to Carrey’s strengths. Unfortunately, his performance could use a bit more menace and fewer cartoonish winks.
Luckily, director Brad Silberling understands that a little Carrey goes a long way; he keeps a tight narrative focus on the children, allowing the sympathetic leads to guide us through his dark and wonderful universe. Silberling moves the story along at a breakneck clip and infuses it with enough humor that one can almost overlook the script’s overly episodic nature.
Facing malevolent typhoons, a teetering cliff house and carnivorous leeches, the Baudelaires live in a seductively gothic world of dilapidated mansions and clockwork contraptions. The film boasts sumptuous production design and lavish set pieces that are nothing short of extraordinary. Snicket truly is a feast for the eyes.
The beleaguered orphans are charming in a somber, deadpan sort of way, and their inventive escapes from certain peril keep the story engaging. Particularly effective is baby Sunny, who communicates through gurgles and squeaks that only her siblings can understand. Good thing we’re provided with often-hilarious subtitles.
The rest of the cast offers up mixed results. Billy Connelly and Meryl Streep are terrific as eccentric relatives who meet unfortunate ends. Minor characters, on the other hand, are distractingly played by Dustin Hoffman, Catherine O’Hara, Luiz Gusman and, in a particularly miscast role, Cedric the Entertainer.
Much like the Harry Potter films, Snicket remains far too faithful to the books’ narrative details and not faithful enough to their darker themes. Screenwriter Robert Gordon fails to build the children’s encounters into a dramatic climax and instead opts for merely stringing them together. Furthermore, the books’ droll wit and dread tone are often sacrificed in favor of whimsy.
Still, the film manages to leave intact Lemony Snicket’s central premise: that the world is a cruel and fickle place where the orphans must rely on their wits and each other to keep safe. A timely message if ever there was one.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].