It constantly surprises people when I tell them that I've never read a Harry Potter book. Being the voracious reader that I am, it amazes them that I haven't glommed on to the most popular series of children's fiction in recent years. Not that I have any objections to Potter, I'd just much rather pick up a classic Vonnegut novel or humor collection by James Thurber rather than the latest from JK Rowling.
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However, it will undoubtedly surprise some people that while I've managed to avoid all of the Pottermania that has descended upon the globe, I have gotten sucked into the Lemony Snicket craze. I have read the first two volumes in the (currently 11)series and found them to be quite good with their mix of dark humor and compassion, much like the classic works of Roald Dahl (and I think I am correct in observing that there would be no Lemony Snicket were it not for Dahl's influence).
So I found myself eager to catch what will undoubtedly be the first in a series of Lemony Snicket movies. The film as a whole does not disappoint those of us who enjoyed the books (or at least a couple of them anyway). Yet on the whole, there seemed to be something missing from it, although I'm not quite sure what.
The movie cobbles its story out of elements of the first three books in the series. We're first introduced to the titular narrator, played by Jude Law, as he sits at the typewriter and tells the story. We're introduced to the Baudelaire children Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). Violet, the oldest, is the little MacGyver type who can build anything out of thin air. Klaus is a smart voracious reader type straight out of the universe of the aforementioned Dahl. And Sunny likes to bite things and speak in baby talk that appears as clever subtitles in the movie.
Also straight out of the Dahl universe is the film's dark tone, which may be too much for the youngest viewers. Youngest viewers being those between 5 and 7. Viewers 8 and up however will probably appreciate the film, which begins with the unfortunate demise of the Baudelaire parents in a fire. The three children are promptly packed off to live with their closest relative (in geographical terms that is): Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).
Olaf is of course, the main villain in this story. He wants to kill the children so he can get his hands on their inheritance. It's up to Violet with her inventiveness and Klaus with his smarts and Sunny with her teeth to stop him.
In one sense, casting Carrey as the dastardly count was a masterstroke. The spastic Carrey hams it up, injecting the right amount of pure evil into the performance. The whole concept of someone named Count Olaf is pretty absurd, almost like something out of Hagar The Horrible (the comic strip, not the singer whom many blame for ruining Van Halen) and Carrey understands this and exploits it to the hilt. However, there are moments where he goes way over the top. Also, he never seems to pose a serious danger to the Baudelaires. Towards the end, he becomes increasingly less evil and more simply smug and arrogant, which makes me think he might have been better off stepping aside and giving the role to someone else, maybe Danny Devito, who could have mixed the right amount of evil and humor to create a truly despicable villain.
The story itself is always entertaining and has plenty of edge of your seat moments mixed with Shrek/Princess Bride style humor (an elderly woman's fear of realtors and how this fear is exploited for instance). The characters are all fairly memorable, even though Cedric The Entertainer felt somewhat out of place as a police inspector. Sunny's one-liners are always funny if a tad overdone in spots.
All in all, aside from the flaws I noted previously, there isn't a whole lot wrong with this first Lemony Snicket film. Yet something prevents me from recommending it higher. In a way, I think it's the overall testing the waters nature of the film. This movie is obviously designed to introduce the characters to the big screen, to an audience that may or may not be familiar with them. One can assume that a good portion of the audience will have read some or all of the Snicket books. But there are also certain parts of the audience that will doubtlessly have never read one and so they have to keep that in mind too.
My other main complaint with the film is that it doesn't go head-on into the full fledged zany darkness, the way a Dahl film would. It teeters on the edge of that for a while. But never quite gets itself over. In a way, I sense that it will actually reach that level in the next one, once we're able to move beyond the introductory phase and into the heart of the story.
So Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events is an overall entertaining film for the holiday season. It's not perfect no. But it does function well as an adequate starter film for the series and gives me hope that it will really take off in the next one.
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