The most wonderful—and most uncommon—children’s entertainment is that which sees its audience not as small fools but as adults to be who will eventually encounter life’s rougher edges and thus deserve to be exposed to stories that will provide them with some warning that sometimes life can be cruel, painful and unfair. Now, exactly how this message is delivered is a matter of delicate craft, for the point here isn’t to browbeat young ones into a premature state of cynical misery. On one end of the spectrum are otherwise bright fantasies that contain within them a distant sting of fate—a missing parent, a wicked relative, an unfamiliar location, an uncertain future. And on the other end are those very few stories who choose to include all of those things and more in a gothic pastiche of what every parent strives to distance their kids from. Among these, there is a particularly fine tale of woe and whimsy that does not ask, but demands, to be seen. And that movie is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The story takes place in some indeterminate time and place; a (nearly) sunless theater rendition of some kind of landscape that would exist if H.P. Lovecraft wrote children’s stories. There, we meet the Baudelaire children—Violent the 14-year-old inventor; Klaus the 12-year-old bookworm; and Sunny the infant with a love for biting things. The Baudelaire’s wealthy parents have did in a house fire that is surely arson, and now the children must be entrusted to the care of one of their distant relatives. Seen to by the well-meaning but incompetent banker Mr. Poe, the kids are the target of the nefarious Count Olaf, a hyper-dramatic and out-of-work actor who seeks to take custody of the children and lock them away somewhere until they’re old enough for him to claim their vast fortune. As Violet, Klaus and Sunny endure the tyrannical company of Count Olaf and his gang of minions, they try again and again to get some other adult to help them. Each time, they learn that they are on their own. Nobody believes their repeated cries for help or attempts to reveal Count Olaf’s villainy. Sometimes life doesn’t just have an unhappy ending, but an unhappy beginning and middle, too.
Adapted from the successful series of dark children’s books of the same name, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a visual masterpiece, involving a precise mix of archaic and theatric set design, costuming, lighting and more to give the whole thing the feeling like it really was taking place in somebody’s story book. There is a perpetual gloom and phantasmagoric quality to the scenery, and while it is fun to look at, it is more. It is the emotional landscape to which the Baudelaires—or any kid who has been abandoned by the adults who are supposed to look out for them—have been exiled. They seem to grasp that there is no easy way out for them. And as the story goes on, they realize an even more important lesson: that no matter how good, kind of smart you are, being a kid is an extended exercise in watching adults not come to your rescue when you really need them to. We all might remember a few of the times adults were there for us when it mattered, but we really remember the times when they were not. This movie is about a universe filled exclusively with such times.
And lest we think that all of this darkness makes for unenjoyable watching, the movie is unexpectedly more fun than it suggests it will be, thanks in large part to an air of whimsical hyperbole throughout. We see it in the overdone scenery and the wild caricatures that every adult in this world inhabits. We see it in the panic-stricken Aunt Josephine and the eccentric Uncle Montgomery, and in the dim-witted Mister Poe. (We see it also in two wonderful performances by Cedric the Entertainer as the Constable and Dustin Hoffman as the Critic, most of which ended up on the cutting room floor, sadly, reminding us that sometimes in order to edit a picture into its best self, some of the best material will be left with nowhere to fit in.)
But we see it most in a truly inspired performance by Jim Carrey, who seemed to know that he teetered on the edge of self-parody with his unhinged and protean turn as Count Olaf and his equally villainous alter egos Stephano and Captain Sham. But throughout the movie, while Carrey steals every scene he is in, he somehow doesn’t take the story entirely away from our downtrodden child heroes. And he is able to veer into all kinds of ridiculous territory (an animated dinosaur impression and a hilarious misunderstanding of what puttanesca means are just two memorable examples) without going so far around the bend that we lose sense of who Count Olaf is or why he acts in this way. Perhaps the best compliment we can pay to Jim Carrey’s performance is that it does an enormous amount of the story’s heavy lifting, but never makes this feel like it is a Jim Carrey movie.
No, this is a movie about a trio of resourceful kids who must survive an indifferent world. So the moment of truth comes after they foil Count Olaf’s wicked plans, when they receive a long-delayed letter from their departed parents. As Violet reads it, we are struck by the parents’ message, which seems to sense that a future when the kids will be on their own is not far off. The letter tells Violet, Klaus and Sunny that when and if that happens, they will be very fortunate, because they will still have each other. Of all the gifts those parents could have left their kids, they left them the most important one: the truth.