Film Fare...with Mark Moorehead
A Series of Unfortunate Events
General Audiences: B
Deranged relative of three orphan children tries to bump them off and collect their inheritance. Imaginative and twisted story with scary sets and dark humor. Resourceful children embrace self-reliance theme.
Family Audiences: C+
Brothers Grimm-type fable where awful things happen to perfectly nice children. Not recommended for children under nine. Rated PG due to thematic elements, scary situations and brief language.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is unlike any children’s film I have reviewed before. It’s difficult to categorize. Is it kiddy horror with a message or a whimsical fright night with cartoon villainy? Imagine a collaboration between the Brothers Grimm (if they were alive) and Stephen King. If you read some of the Grimm stories in their original unedited text, you know that children over 100 years ago were subjected to some very frightening situations, such as the prospect of being baked in an oven.
Today’s bedtime story finds three orphan children deliberately locked in a car on a train track by their closest relative and desperately trying to get out before a speeding locomotive smashes them to smithereens. And, that’s just the beginning of their trials.
These unfortunate events were adapted from the immensely popular books The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window by author Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler).
Snicket prides himself in providing children a balanced view of life by exposing them to its dark side. He does this with Dickensian settings and creepy, eccentric characters shrouded in blacks, grays and browns.
To clarify his bias for the dark side, the film begins with a deceptively bright and colorful cartoon short about a cute little elf.
The film clip suddenly freezes and we hear Lemony’s voice (provided by Jude Law) warn viewers that, if they wish to see a cute and cuddly cartoon story, they should move to the theater next door because what they are about to see is sinister and scary.
Can’t say he didn’t warn you.
Law’s narration of the film in the guise of the author plucking away at his typewriter serves as an emotional safety net for young viewers, characterized by his regular interruptions to the story as if to say, “Hey, kids, remember--it’s all fiction. I’m making this up as I go.”
He outlines the plight of the three Baudelaire children (played by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), recently orphaned after a mysterious arson fire killed their eccentric parents.
Villainous Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) is given custody of Violet (Browning), a 14-year-old with an ingenious mechanical aptitude; Klaus (Aiken), a brilliant, book-loving 12-year-old; and their toddler sister Sunny (played alternately by the Hoffman twins).
All three children immediately recognize Count Olaf’ for what he is: a cruel and wicked man intent on killing them and collecting their inheritance.
Director Brad Siberling uses Sunny as the comic relief by translating her “baby speak” with sub-titles wherever Olaf convinces naďve and hapless adults in the film that he only wants what is best for the children.
And comic relief is needed. Olaf wastes no time establishing his relationship to the children by slapping Klaus hard across the face, locking the children in a dark, filthy room and putting them to work.
Fortunately, the talented children manage to flee his clutches and find new guardians by bonding and being resourceful. Yet, the scheming Olaf always manages to catch up with them and disarm their new caregivers with a new disguise.
Carrey is good but too much of a ham as he bounces between evil incarnate and a villainous clown. He acts as if he’s constantly looking in the mirror and practicing for a one-man show as a contortionist mime.
Carrey’s “look at me, look at me” antics begin to grate on the audience. On the other hand, the two older kids (Browning and Aiken) excel as adult role models by staying cool and keeping their heads while their world literally falls apart around them.
Although A Series of Unfortunate Events contains questionable subject matter for a family film (i.e., murder by arson, attempted murder, suicide and child abuse) it is done in a Brothers Grimm fantasy setting, and the children are never physically harmed.Okay, now that we’ve visited the dark side of children’s fables, I’m ready to see that happy elf.