A correction was made to this review on Dec. 13, 2004.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events,” adapted from the long-running (11 so far) and enormously successful (27 million copies sold) series of children’s books by the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), is set in a Dickensian dystopia populated by wise children and menacing grownups. Intended as catnip for “Harry Potter” fans, Snicket’s macabre tale of three newly orphaned siblings has been lavishly visualized. But for all its elaborate splendor, production pic lacks the feeling and imagination that have distinguished the best recent kidpics. Nevertheless, Snicket’s rabid fan base will stuff Par’s stockings with B.O. dollars throughout the holiday season.
In keeping with the playful tone of Snicket’s/Handler’s books and their constant pleading with the reader to “read something else,” pic opens with a mock title sequence for a musical cartoon entitled “The Littlest Elf,” before Snicket himself (here played by Jude Law) appears to advise viewers the film they are about to see is decidedly unpleasant.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” then introduces the three Baudelaire siblings: Rube Goldberg-like inventor Violet (Emily Browning), voracious reader Klaus (Liam Aiken), and teething infant Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), whose incomprehensible baby talk is amusingly subtitled into English throughout.
When the Baudelaire home is destroyed by a mysterious fire, killing both parents, the children are entrusted to the care of their closest relative — closest referring to distance rather than bloodlines. And so the tykes end up in the deceptively welcoming arms of Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an alleged “actor” whose chin narrows to a dramatic point and whose tufts of wiry hair dart from his head as if trying to flee. Soon, Olaf subjects his young relations to Cinderella-like chores while plotting to defraud them of their inheritance money.
“A Series of Unfortunate Events” gets bogged down here, with Carrey in the kind of hyperactive mode where a little goes a long way. In a turn that couldn’t be further from his subdued everyman in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Carrey is turned loose by director Brad Silberling and permitted to vamp up and down the screen in whatever way he sees fit. The more pic indulges in these antics, the more it starts to feel less like “Harry Potter” and more like “Ace Ventura.”
Pic picks up again when the kids, having momentarily escaped from Olaf’s sinister machinations, find themselves in the care of their herpetologist uncle (Billy Connolly), who hints that the death of the Baudelaire parents may be tied to a larger conspiracy. A warm, welcome presence whose constant adornment with snakes may trigger memories of “Alexander” in some, Connolly gives the kind of eccentric, but controlled comic turn that’s like Carrey turned down by 50%.
Olaf inevitably surfaces again, this time disguised as an “Italian gentleman” who, before long, has finagled a way to wrest the children back into his “care.” As before, while it’s initially hilarious to see Carrey under elaborate prosthetic makeup, peddling an accent that’s closer to Rome, Wis., than Rome, Italy, this routine too becomes tiresome.
The Baudelaires ricochet between Olaf (in a variety of loopy guises, courtesy of makeup artist Bill Corso and costumer Colleen Atwood) and other potential foster parents, including Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who was once a great adventurer, before becoming a timid prisoner in her dramatic cliffside home.
Clearly inspired by the work of Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm, Snicket’s novels are targeted at children with a hearty appetite for the dark, gruesome and mysterious. The film version is at its best when it allows Klaus, Violet and Sunny to work their way out of perilous predicaments using only their wits and their special talents — particularly in one spectacular set piece involving Aunt Josephine’s house.
But as with the first two “Harry Potter” entries, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” ultimately feels like the triumph of literal-mindedness over lyricism. It also has a hollow emotional core. At no point in the film do the Baudelaire children seem truly mournful over the death of their parents, nor does Silberling’s imagery, eye-grabbing as it may be, ever truly transport viewers into a fully fleshed-out meta-reality. While kids are certain to be entertained by the sheer accumulation of incident, parents may well find themselves checking their watches.
Set in Boston in an unspecified time that is all moody fog and gloom, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” suggests what “Mary Poppins” might have looked like had Tim Burton directed it. Not surprisingly, Burton’s longtime production designer Rick Heinrichs was responsible for the sets, while ace d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki (Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”) contributed the expressionistic lighting schemes.