This is the tale of the Littlest Elf, a tiny, happy chap who lived in the woodland with all the creatures and - no, wait a minute, that's not what this is about at all. If you are of a nervous disposition you had better leave, because this story is not going to be pretty as we delve into the lives of the Baudelaire children, who spent a contented existence with their parents in their large town house. Eldest Violet (Emily Browning) was a budding inventor, brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) had a photographic memory for all those books he read from the extensive library, and the youngest, the infant Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) liked to bite things. But one day there was a fire...
The Lemony Snicket books were popular enough to warrant a movie version, which arrived to rather less success than the Harry Potter adaptations that evidently they hoped to emulate, so no sequel was ever made. The 2000s was the decade of the big studios seeking out that moneyspinning franchise, and A Series of Unfortunate Events was yet another example of one that never took off, which was puzzling because in general it received a fairly warm welcome, with Jim Carrey as the wicked Count Olaf garnering some especially favourable notices as his tendency to chew the scenery was well applied here.
The Count is the man who the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with after their house burns down and kills their parents, for he is supposedly their closest relative, even though they've never heard of him and the family ties are tenuous at best. Or at worst, because Olaf cannot conceal the only reason he wants the children around is to get his hands on their substantial inheritance, and once they are left with him he puts them to work as slaves, awaiting news of that cash he so desires. Carrey plays this as broadly as he ever did, but skillfully with it, wringing some genuine laughs out of the character's pretentious self-regard and lack of awareness about his own ludicrousness.
Yet he's still the villain and Carrey fleshes out the personality with some cartoonish deviousness that makes him the best character in the film. The children, by contrast, are a pretty earnest bunch aside from Sunny, who gurgles unintelligibly but gets subtitles so we can see the lame wisecracks she is coming out with. It's probably for the best that the Baudelaires are so serious, as everyone around them is portrayed in various degrees of caricature thanks to game guest stars such as Billy Connolly, the kind hearted uncle who is a snake expert, or Meryl Streep, the trembling aunt who lives on the top of a cliff, her house perilously teetering on the brink of oblivion.
In spite of the warning that Snicket (narration by Jude Law, who also appears in silhouette) gives, there's nothing too scary about this, as the tone revels in the black comedy and pleasing gothic art direction which oveprowers all but Carrey a little too often. Count Olaf, after being turned down for looking after the orphans, then does his best to win them back using disguises and murdering the guardians who would have been eminently more suitable, and the lack of control the children have over their environment is well conveyed, but not so much that they appear utterly hopeless. So no matter what Olaf throws at them, whether it's stranding them in the path of an oncoming train or working out a way to marry Violet so he can grab that fortune through underhand means, the Baudelaires always manage to squirm out of his clutches, which adds a cheering mood to what could have been too bleak. Music by Thomas Newman.