Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

One of the more unusual but equally delightful films you'll see this holiday season, A Series of Unfortunate Events is based on the first three books in a successful children's series. A combination of fantasy and reality, modern and ages past, it's a unique blend of symbolism and charm. It won't be everyone's cup of peppermint tea but for those who enjoy morbid humor, gothic architecture, and just a touch of truth, it's a fun way to spend a couple of hours. In a world of happy stories, there must be one darker one. Much to the misfortune of Lemony Snickett (Jude Law), he has been required to record the tragic history of the three Baudelaire children.

 

The eldest, Violet (Emily Browning) is a talented inventor who always ties her hair up whenever she's scheming. Her younger brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) is an avid reader who spends all of his time buried in the stacks of books in their enormous library. And the youngest, Sunny (Kara Hfofman) loves to bite. It doesn't matter what it is, from table legs to game pieces, if it's there to be bitten, she's more than willing to oblige. One dreary morning of exploration, the banker comes to inform them of sad tidings: their house has mysteriously burned to the ground, and their parents perished in the flames. The children have become orphans and are given into the care of their distant relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who is an actor by trade, and evil by nature. He intends to work the children hard until acquiring their immense fortune, at which point he can happily leave them to be run over by a train.

 

When the children discover his schemes, they set in motion a plan to be free of Olaf. But even when they believe themselves rescued and happy in the company of Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), a zoologist with an enormous collection of exotic reptiles, Count Olaf has not given up in his quest to reclaim the children's guardianship and their fortune. It will take Violet's imagination, Klaus' immense knowledge, and yes, even Sunny's biting talents to help them forge eel-infested waters and ensnare the devious Count in his own clever trap. Along the way they will experience many adventures in a 'series of unfortunate events' that help them bond together, form their character, and ultimately come to realize that while evil lingers in the world, it can always be overcome through goodness. At times a very strange piece of work but always intriguing, the film has many things in its favor. The story combines centuries past with the modern era.

 

Gowns with bustles, a lack of running water, and exotic but primitive sea ports coexist with automatic locks in cars, towering refrigerators, and speed boats. It sounds very peculiar but the strange thing about it is how the audience never once questions this curious world of modern inventions and Victorian ideals. The essence of the film is that of a fantasy universe where dark places are bleak, and sunsets are breathtaking. The set and costume design are all marvelous, highly unusual and very inventive. I was also impressed with the acting. Jim Carrey's Count Olaf was over the top, but he was meant to be. From the very first frame, the audience hates him. When he calls the adorable Sunny a little monkey, we hate him more. And by the end we really loathe the slime wad. The children are very personable, and I was impressed with how well they acted with one another. Meryl Streep also makes a wonderfully comical appearance.

 

Rated PG for thematic elements and brief violence, the film is family-friendly. Very young children will find many situations frightening -- a storm tears a house from the cliffs and plunges it into the lake, with ensuing chaos as the children are placed in direct peril from raging winds, flaming stoves, and menacing flying ice boxes. They are nearly attacked by an enormous black snake. Rabid eels attack a boat on two occasions; on the second, they also chow down on the occupant. It's implied that a fire has killed several people, another is poisoned, one is eaten by eels, and that one may have fallen to her death through a high window. (A suicide note accompanies their discovery.) Sunny bites Count Olaf on the leg after he's brutally slapped Klaus. There is one profanity, several mild abuses of deity, and an instance when in subtitles Sunny's innocent baby noises translates to "Bite me!"

 

There is no sexual content but the much older Count does attempt to force Violet to marry him. His intentions are only that she has to turn over her money to him, and do household chores, so there's nothing lecherous about it. Much of the symbolism will go over its intended audience's head, but the entire film seems to be a metaphor for what children face, and how they feel about it. The exaggerated characters and situations translate very well to how children see things -- overblown and dramatic. The loss of a parent, a divorce, and having no control over the situations you find yourself in are common to every little boy and girl. Here we see the Baudelaires in much the same predicament. But rather than sitting back and allowing it to happen, they take charge and learn to build a "safe little place in a threatening world." Ultimately the message is that you must fight for your rights, that you're not completely helpless, that good ultimately triumphs over evil, and most of all, that although the world has many bad people in it, there are also many good people. Some may feel the film is too dark but I found the events and ending conclusion worth any morbidity. If you read and enjoyed the books, or are simply looking for an intelligent and slightly off the wall children's film, you'll find yourself engrossed in the world of Lemony Snicket.

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