Saturday, December 18, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law (voice)
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Brief Mild Language, Fantasy Violence

Preconceived Notions: Another children's book gets the Harry Potter treatment.
The Bottom Line: Imaginative, otherworldly, dark-humored fun, even if Carrey hams things up too much.

A Series Of Unfotunate Events is in many ways what the Harry Potter movies should've have been and weren't. But Lemony Snicket, you're no J.K. Rowling. Three of your books would fit nicely into one of hers, and thus the transition from page to screen is much easier. In fact, this film combines the first three books of the Snicket series in a way that is not hurried nor stretched.

I have not read any of the source material, but from what I saw, it's obvious the filmmakers did not have to pledge their loyalty (a la the Potter series) to recreating the books page for page. The result is a film that may lack words, but still resonates with meaning and heart.

Snicket, voiced by Jude Law, narrates the story of the Baudelaire orphans: 14-year-old Violet, who has a knack for invention; 12-year-old Klaus, a bookworm who remembers everything; and Sunny, the baby of the group who, well, likes to bite things. Some of the film's best moments come from her babbling, which is translated for us via subtitles. The children are left homeless and parentless by a mysterious fire, and in steps a banker to shuttle them off to the nearest yet least inappropriate guardians, the worst of which is Count Olaf (Carrey) -- an evil would-be actor who looks like a long lost relative of the Addam's Family -- who's grubbing for the family fortune. Carrey is simply a perfect fit for the role, but I did find a few scenes tugging for laughs. As Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind proved eariler this year, Carrey is at his best when he's not going out of his way to be funny. Before the film is over we will also meet Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), the warm-hearted reptile expert, and Aunt Josephine (Streep), who's deathly afraid of death, accidents and realtors.

The children rely on their brainpower (or bite-power) to get them out of various predicaments as they try to stave off Olaf. The results are sometimes more sad than funny, but Snicket has tried to warn us. The opening sequence even riffs off of the film's dark humor, inserting a brightly animated sequence called "The Happy Little Elf," which ends abruptly with Snicket's words, "I'm sorry, but this is not the film you will be seeing." Snicket's narration adds a highly enjoyable dimension to the film as the author, a sort of Dickensian detective, guides us through the storyline and themes.

The film takes place in its own world. It crosses a dark, bleak, turn-of-the-century England and America. The cast is dotted with both British and American accents. The costumes suggest early 1900's, but the dialogue doesn't. I finally gave up trying to date the film and decided it exists in the universe of children's books, where imagination is constantly bending the time-space continuum.

Watching Events is like watching a bedtime story come to life, but without the happily-ever-after. It does not overload us with subplots or deep mysteries. And even with Snicket's tounge-in-cheek warnings, the film is not overtly violent or depressing, although I wouldn't take kids younger than six. They won't pick up on the film's messages, although hopefully the adults will. And the film has a lot to say to the older folks: when the kids know what's really going on and you don't, that's really... unfortunate.

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