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Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Brad Sieberling (director) and Robert Gordon (writer)
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   December 17, 2004
Review Date:   December 25, 2004
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

"Sunny, would you bite the head off of that elf, please?" -- Violet Baudelaire

As a kid, I never really got into that genre of children's books aimed mainly at little girls. The ones where some poor girl (usually), who most times was British, had misfortune and cruelty heaped upon her through the whole book until the end, when something would happen (a revelation of restored gardens, perhaps) to make everything OK. They were usually adapted into Shirley Temple films.

I just didn't enjoy reading about these poor, helpless protagonists and their torments or watching their movie versions. I also thought the villains never really got what they truly deserved or that the payoff was worth everything the poor girls went through.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is in that style of story. Heaps of, well, unfortunate events are perpetrated upon the poor Baudelaire children. Not having read the wildly popular books, I can't say if Series is a genuine entry into that subgenre or a parody of it; but the horrible, sad, and terrible things that happen to the unlucky Baudelaire children make for a really good movie.

Likewise I can't say how faithful the film is in adapting the first three Unfortunate novels (A Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window), although the decision to adapt three books at once seems to be one of the weaknesses of the movie. But I'll get to that in a bit.

Tragic Fun

This is the story of Violet Baudelaire (Emily "Don't hold Darkness Falls against me" Browning) and her siblings Klaus (Liam "Road to Perdition" Aiken), Sunny (Kara & Shelby "We're the baby, gotta love us!" Hoffman), and all the rotten things that happen to them, starting with a horrible fire that renders them homeless (but wealthy) orphans.

Violet is an inventor, Klaus is a vivid reader who remembers everything he reads, and Sunny apparently has adamantium teeth and can bite through anything. Each of these skills cleverly gets them out of sticky situations, the main one being the pursuit of their fortune by their closest relative, Count Olaf (Jim "Rubber Face" Carrey).

Usually I dislike Carrey in films, because without a strong director reining him in he's a hammy over-actor. But since Count Olaf is a hammy over-actor, it's perfect casting here.

Olaf does his best to steal the fortune of the poor Baudelaire children with various schemes, supported by his eclectic group of dramatists. When each one fails and the children are sent to another guardian, Olaf pops up again in disguise, with another plan to take possession of the children and their money. Olaf is one of those recurring villains that you enjoy seeing return and wondering what his new plan will be.

The tone of the film is similar to the works of Ed Gorey and Tim Burton, dark but with underpinnings of humor and the fantastic. I give the director and set designers a lot of credit for working in that territory without aping Burton's style, but having their own take on the genre. I also give them a lot of credit for the level of darkness in the movie. There are deaths, some scares and some very intense scenes (for the younger set; we older kids should have no problems). They don't kiddy it up much at all.

In the World

Another plus for the film are the performances. The children are particularly good. I applaud the baby wranglers: I really bought into Sunny being a fully aware little person who just happened to be unable to talk yet.

The film has one of the best end-titles sequences that I've seen in a while, and some other cute bits where it plays with the medium of film. Combined with narration by Mr. Snicket (Jude "Devilishly Handsome" Law), these tricks really made it feel like you were being immersed in the world of the books.

Series isn't perfect. It feels a bit rushed in places, as the children are bustled from guardian to guardian. I don't know if it's because the books are thin, or that they cut a lot of each book out to get to the next one. But it makes for thin characterization in some places. Of course, it may just be a flaw in the genre; in many kids' books the characters aren't much more than archetypes.

Overall, Series is a fun movie that, like the Harry Potter series, seems to work well both in film and in novel form at separate levels that kids and adults will enjoy. In fact, I think I'll track down the books to see how they match up. The movie is certainly a success on that front.

But I still won't read A Little Princess. You can't make me.

Gary Mitchel was saddled at a very young and impressionable age with the nickname "Sneezy the Squid," a moniker that, unhappily, seems to grow only stronger with each review he writes as a freelancer for fine electronic publications such as this.

 
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