As with the Harry Potter films, I hadn't read a word of the Lemony Snicket children's book series before seeing its first big-screen adaptation. (I've still got Russell Banks' big bastard book Cloudsplitter and a couple of Neil Gaiman novels to get through before moving on to those best sellers.) So the following review comes from a bloke who is not familiar with the literary world of Count Olaf and the Baudelaire children.
The film starts off with a warning that the movie is extremely unpleasant, and those looking for a happy story might wish to visit another theater. Word on the street is that the film isn't nearly as unpleasant as the books. Some reviewers have trashed Jim Carrey's portrayal of Olaf as typical manic Carrey showboating. From my viewpoint, this movie is substantially nasty for a children's film, and Carrey's comical clowning makes Olaf all the more evil, creepy and fun. It's fair to say that those who haven't read the books, such as me, might wind up having a better time.
The Baudelaire children are Violet (Emily Browning), an ingenious inventor; Klaus (Liam Aiken), a curious bookworm; and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), an intelligent toddler who likes to bite things. They discover in the film's opening minutes that their parents have perished in a deadly house fire, and that they must go live with their geographically closest relative, Count Olaf.
Olaf has plans to kill the children and collect their inheritance. His parenting methodologies include leaving the kids parked on a train track, dropping them from extreme heights and, in the case of Violet, marrying her against her will. In other words, Olaf is no Mary Poppins, so if you're looking for a fun, spiritually enlightening day with the kids, proceed with caution.
Obviously, this is tricky material, but Carrey and company pull it off with demented style. The Olaf character is an aspiring actor, which provides Carrey with plenty of comic material and alter egos to portray. The clowning opportunities are countered with a nice helping of nastiness, which Carrey plays well, making Olaf the most offbeat and strange of villains. I was surprised to see such a despicable character in a kid's film.
The movie has a look similar to this year's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, sporting a washed-out gothic approach. The dark look fits the tone of the film, and the closing credits feature cartoons that pay homage to drawings seen in the books.
The supporting cast includes Billy Connolly as a sweetheart uncle who loves reptiles, and Meryl Streep as a phobic Aunt who lives in a house that teeters over a steep cliff. There are a few surprise cameos, one of them especially big near film's end.
Director Brad Silberling turns out to be an excellent choice to direct this material. His Moonlight Mile was an offbeat mixture of humor and tragedy, as is this film. While the movies feature tremendously different worlds, both manage a nice balance of humor and dreariness, an impressive accomplishment. Silberling is proving himself an expert at drawing laughter out of morbid and sad situations.
There have been 11 Lemony Snicket books thus far, and the series is allegedly supposed to stop at 13. The film has left me intrigued, so I might pick up one or two books before the next installment, if there should be one. Carrey and Silberling deserve a lot of credit, because getting laughs with your movie is a tough task. Getting laughs in a kid's movie shortly after a main character is eaten by leeches is monumentally impressive.