When I first saw the trailer for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I had never given much thought to the series of children’s books written by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. But since my roommate owns the first six, I figured little could be lost by giving them a go, if for no other reason than I had decided while watching the trailer that I wanted to review the film.
They’re quick reads and wonderfully delightful, and I soon found myself reading “book the fifth,” (currently there are 11 in publication). Only the first three of the series were used to make the movie, which was probably the wisest choice, as including further plot segments would likely have made the film a jumbled mess.
For those not familiar with the book series, the story is a simple one: the wealthy parents of the three bright, talented Baudelaire children are killed in a mysterious fire that destroys their home, after which they are shuffled from one guardian to another, all while the evil Count Olaf—the first guardian to whom they are appointed—connives to steal their fortune.
As expected, fairly major liberties were taken in turning the books into a movie, but these liberties happily don’t interfere with the charm of Handler’s storytelling, particularly its treatment of children as capable, intelligent individuals who sometimes possess greater knowledge and intuitive ability than do the adults who lord over them. Even the plot addition required to bring the story to something of a close—there are, after all, at least eight more adventures awaiting the children, and the movie ends in such a way that another installment is possible—doesn’t harm the general tone of the story.
The children cast as the Baudelaire orphans play their parts perfectly. Violet is the eldest, an inventor, and self-possessed without being snobbish. Klaus is the middle child, a voracious reader, and just heroic enough to offset the nerdiness generally associated with bookworms. And the youngest Baudelaire is Sunny, an infant who loves to bite things, and who despite lacking the ability to speak English is perfectly capable of making herself understood to her siblings. In their roles, Emily Browning and Liam Aiken offer performances with which one would be hard-pressed to find fault. And director Brad Silberling must be applauded for the performances he gets from infants Kara and Shelby Hoffman as Sunny—she is as full of vivacious curiosity and willfulness as her literary counterpart.
Of course, the “star” of the film is “Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey, and Jim Carrey.” Though Carrey has given some tremendous performances—The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, and, I’m told, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—he is one of the most annoying presences ever to be put to film. Luckily, the portrayal of Count Olaf requires an annoying presence; he is a selfish, unkind man for whose demise we wish from the moment of introduction. As Count Olaf, no one could have been better cast.
There are three other big names attached to this film: Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Jude Law as Lemony Snicket, and Dustin Hoffman as … Dustin Hoffman. Of course, Meryl Streep doesn’t have it in her to disappoint an audience. And Law plays his small role just as he should: without making it anything more than what it is; we never even see his face. Hoffman’s presence, though, is unnecessary and jarring. At a moment in the movie when it is most important that we be absorbed, that our disbelief be completely suspended, Hoffman pops up in a thoroughly superfluous role, and we are suddenly plopped back into our stadium seating with a movie star on screen before us.
The only other part of the film I wish had been done differently involves the invention of a grappling hook. One of the things that most impresses me in Handler’s books is his presentation of the siblings’ relationships with one another. Both because she is the eldest and because her parents directly asked her to do so, Violet sees herself as the only true protector of her siblings. And though Klaus and Sunny are always integral to handling whatever misfortune befalls the orphans, Violet is inherently the strongest figure. But in this particular scene, a change is made that, though small, places Klaus as the siblings’ savior. As Hollywood is so wont to do, it is the boy who must save the day, lest little girls start getting ideas.
But despite Hoffman’s presence and Hollywood’s misogyny, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is an extremely enjoyable movie. As for the scenery, Tim Burton himself would have difficulty creating a better display, and the story, despite the orphans’ constant adversity, is fantastically fun. It is a film with a moral, but one that is neither trite nor heavy-handed. In this season of shopping, add a movie ticket to you child’s Christmas list.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events / Ryan Lindsey
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()