It's old hat for me at this point, but once again, let me remind those who have forgot--it doesn't matter one whit if this film has changed anything contained in the books (please see my "novel to film mini-rant", marked in bold red in my user profile). For me, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is an excellent film, regardless of how closely it "matches" the Daniel Handler books that form the creative basis. The film deserves a 10 for production design alone, but there is much more to it than that. If you're at all a fan of surrealism, especially surrealism with a dark edge (although the film is certainly not without humor), you can't afford to miss this movie.
The story is centered on the Baudelaire kids, Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and infant Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). In a move that could be a satire on the typical Disney scenario, they're left orphans when a fire tragically destroys their home and kills their parents. The film tells the story of how they are shuttled from home to home of different "relatives", with the particularly manipulative and sadistic Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) in hot pursuit of the Baudelaire family fortune after the state finally sees the error of its ways in leaving the kids with him.
If you think of the "Do you think it's all right to leave the boy with Cousin Kevin?" section of Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) stretched out into feature length, made a bit less vicious, sprinkled with liberal doses of Roald Dahlian fantasy, and set in a delightfully anachronistic mishmash alternate universe that combines everything from Victorian fashion sensibilities to postmodern "retro-tech" Terry Gilliam-like gadgets, you'll have a good idea of what the film is like. Tonally and in its visual surrealism, A Series of Unfortunate Events is like a very dark and brooding Dr. Seuss. It also bears some resemblance to the visual art styles of Charles Addams and Edward Gory (IMDb's auto-spell correction won't let me spell his name correctly), as well as animation styles such as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
As that collection of references should make clear, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is in "parental guidance" territory. Even though Handler's books are clearly marketed as children's fiction, and the film was also pitched towards a young audience, the material is darker, more twisted and maybe a bit too intense than some parents would like for their pre-teens, not to mention that younger kids may likely find it boring, anyway. But if you or your kids like your fairy tales on the more macabre side, Lemony Snicket will be right up your alley.
Which is not to say that this is a horror film, exactly, although in ways the Baudelaire kids' misadventures do resemble a nightmare (and Count Olaf's name and appearance bear a resemblance to the portrayal of Count Dracula in Nosferatu (1922), called Graf Orlok in that masterpiece). But Violet, Klaus and Sunny (their last name, by the way, is a reference to Charles Baudelaire, whose quirkily morbid poetry was to 19th Century romantic literature as A Series of Unfortunate Events is to contemporary children's literature) solve their dilemmas through cunning, using their respective strengths--ingenious invention for Violet, a wealth of book knowledge for Klaus, and biting for Sunny. The message throughout the film tends to be that intellect can overcome any conundrum--and that even goes for the villain; he just has a bit less intellect than the Baudelaire kids.
The actors playing the Baudelaire kids are good, and the rest of the cast contains a lot of starsCarrey, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Billy Connolly, Catherine O'Hara, Luis Guzman, and so on. While that might sound like a bloated roster, they're made good use of through the episodic nature of the story. Most are only in the film in their segments. All show why they are stars, even if a couple, such as Hoffman and Guzman, aren't given much to do. The only aspect you might find off-putting is if you're not a Jim Carrey fan, as he does his usual schtick here, albeit far more dark and twisted--a bit like the "evil" Mask (1994), only not as hyper. I love Carrey's usual manic-comic mode, and I also love dark and twisted, so I had no complaints.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a technical exemplar in every department. The direction and editing are flawless. Thomas Newman's score is attractive and perfectly fits the mood of the film. But what I continually found the most stunning was the production design. The sets, props, costumes, matte paintings, cgi environments and so on are all wonderfully imaginative and beautiful--even the stuff that was purposefully very desolate, gray and drab. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is fine, although it would probably be difficult to execute a bad shot amidst all of the visual marvels. The anachronisms are seamlessly integrated. Even though our cast is wearing mostly Victorian garments and driving classic automobiles, complete with dashboard mini-reel-to-reel players, it all feels very natural.
Although this film did respectably at the box office, it didn't do near as well as it should have (especially considering its budget). I think it may have been a bit mismarketed. It deserves a first look or a second chance, but try to get it out of your mind that it's primarily for the young--it's instead for the "child" in all of us.