|Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara & Shelby Hoffman
Director: Brad Silberling
It seems unfair to say that “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a letdown, but a letdown it is. For all it gets right – the art direction is spectacular, the casting is inspired, and the shuffling of the first three books into one story was handled remarkably well – there is one thing fatally missing from the goings on, which is a sense of genuine peril. For all of the bad things that happen to the protagonists, and there are a lot of them, it never feels as though anything is really at stake. Is it so wrong to actually scare children a little?
The movie starts brilliantly, with a claymation-type opening scene of a forest filled with the warm and fuzzy friends of The Littlest Elf. The Littlest Elf was a happy bloke with a chipmunk laugh… and he lasts about 30 seconds before the narrator, one Lemony Snicket (Jude Law), sets us straight. This is anything but a happy story. There are no warm fuzzies to be found for miles. Rather, we learn that the Baudelaire children, eldest daughter Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), and the ever-teething toddler Sunny (Kara & Shelby Hoffman), are now orphans; their beautiful house just burned to the ground, and their parents perished in the blaze. The children, seemingly happy and well adjusted, don’t shed a tear. Perhaps they misheard the news.
The executor of their parents’ estate, clueless banker Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), sends them off to live with their nearest relative, who is anything but. Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) leads a theater troupe but can’t act, a buffoon who seems to have a hypnotic influence over all the adults despite being as difficult to see through as Saran Wrap. Olaf makes no bones about his intent to liberate the orphans from their inheritance; he’s also not afraid to administer some good old fashioned child abuse, smacking Klaus and locking Sunny in a bird cage dangling outside of a third story window. As for Violet, well, he marries her. Jerry Lee Lewis must be seething with jealousy.
You can tell right away why Carrey was attracted to the role. Since they blended the first three books into one movie (they were clearly unafraid to tweak major plot points in the books, and for the most part their instincts were dead on), Carrey plays three very different characters, the second and third of which are far more interesting than Count Olaf. Perhaps calling them more interesting is unfair; the truth is they’re not as over the top. Olaf seems too “Grinch”-like, a caricature of a copy of a fax of a humorous villain, whereas the "scientist" and "sea captain" he portrays later – the latter of which seems to be modeled entirely after Hank Azaria's Captain McAllister on "The Simpsons" – are more amusing because Olaf has established that he's not a master thespian, and then he offers irrefutable proof. Some amusing cameos appear throughout as well, though it will take Slick Willie Clinton to convince me why the appearance of the AFLAC duck was at all necessary.
You could argue that the orphans of the “Lemony Snicket” series deserved better than this, but then again, maybe they didn’t. After all, there wasn’t a single adult on the same continent as them that took them seriously for a second. Why should the viewers of their story take them any more seriously? That said, the series is not without its potential, so maybe this will be like “Spider-Man” or “X-Men,” where the filmmakers learn from their mistakes the first time and nail the landing the second time. After all, it’s not like the filmmakers got everything wrong. They just didn’t get the right things right.
The two-disc special collector’s edition DVD of “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” may not be the best buy for just any fan of the film, but it offers more than enough extras to keep you busy for several days. Disc one includes two audio commentary tracks (one by director Brad Silberling and the other by Lemony Snicket), three production featurettes, and a collection of 11 deleted scenes and five outtakes. On the second disc are even more production featurettes (12 to be exact) with three of those dedicated to sound design and four focusing just on the special effects of the film. Three photo galleries wrap up the bonus material for disc two.