Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
The theater darkens, and we are immediately confronted by singing squirrels and a cherubic puppet dancing merrily through a magical forest. Then, just as suddenly, the movie grinds to a halt, and the voice of our narrator (Jude Law) informs us that if we were expecting to see The Littlest Elf, we are in the wrong theater. What we are about to see is a children’s film where houses burn down or tumble into the ocean, where babies are threatened and parents die. Screenwriter Robert Gordon is making the bold assertion from the outset that we are about to see nothing like the usual holiday family film. For the most part, Gordon and director Brad Silberling live up to their claim, for Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a darker children’s movie than even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Lemony Snicket is not only the pen name of Daniel Handler, but also the name of the narrator within his immensely popular children’s books. The books concern the travails of the Baudelaires—14-year-old Violet, the ingenious inventor; 12-year-old Klaus, the insatiable reader; and one-and-a-half-year-old Sunny, the pre-verbal biter—orphaned because a suspicious fire has razed the family mansion and killed their parents while the children were at the world’s grayest, bleakest beach. (The funereal, Edward Gorey-ish look of that beach, of the mansion’s smoldering timbers, and of pretty much everything else, sets the creepy tone for the entire film, thanks to designer Rick Heinrichs.)
The newly parentless children are sent to live with Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an evil actor who locks them in the attic and schemes to steal their fortune. Carrey overdoes it at first, but soon settles into the role (and several other Peter Sellers-like costume changes) to become a delicious villain. Meryl Streep shows up as the hyper-nervous Aunt Josephine, and Dustin Hoffman has a cameo as a pompous theater critic. But the film is carried by Emily Browning as Violet and by Liam Aiken as Klaus. Because they take themselves seriously— but not too seriously—Browning and Aiken create that most elusive rarity: movie characters under the age of 16 with a sense of dignity. That dignity provides Violet and Klaus with the resilience to survive the dangers that confront them. But the children never conquer those threats; they merely survive them, and that’s the bravest message of this unconventional movie: Evil and misfortune can only be kept at bay—they can never be banished.