Children’s tale impressive but confused by conflicting imagery
The animated sequence during the final credits might be the best thing in Brad Silberling’s Lemony Snicket movie, but that doesn’t mean that the film itself is without interest.
As it happens, the movie adaptation of Daniel Handler’s books cuts a fairly striking figure on the big screen, and it has the benefit of a good cast and some impressive set design. But it’s also the kind of storybook thing that might have been better served cinematically by animation than by live action.
The Lemony Snicket stories have been noted as children’s adventures with deliberately literary doses of dark vision—signaled partly by characters who have the same last names as those poets of darkness and horror, Baudelaire and Poe. When translated into movie images, however, those literary tropes end up creating some troubling imbalances.
Those resourceful kid protagonists—Klaus, Violet and their impudent baby sister Sunny—remain impossibly calm and knowing while whole scenes are dominated by impossibly grotesque adult figures, particularly Jim Carrey as the dastardly Count Olaf, but also Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine and, to a lesser extent, Timothy Spall as Mr. Poe and Billy Connolly as Uncle Monty.
Grossly literal-minded depictions of encounters with snakes and leeches nudge parts of the action toward horror film territory, which only heightens the sense of imbalance in the movie’s imagery. And while the film faithfully asserts the presence of Lemony Snicket himself as intrusive and deceptively whimsical narrator (voiceovers by Jude Law), the movie looks more and more like an excessively clever contraption with at least four disparate fantasies rattling around in it.
The stylized caricatures of the adults make Unfortunate Events into something like a Dickens novel but with fairy tale protagonists instead of the likes of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or Pip. Lemony’s narration seems to deliberately and knowingly scramble these anomalies, but the images onscreen tell a different, less coherent story.