It also has the genius of a multi-disguised Jim Carrey, the narrative voice (and silhouetted presence) of a finely articulated Jude Law, and a basis in a best-selling series of books, 18 million copies of which have been sold since 1999. The movie has seamless effects, inspired inventiveness, and a serious dramatic "problem." More on that below.
The Baudelaire kids are Violet (Emily Browning), at age 14 the eldest, Klaus (Liam Aiken), 12, and baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman). Each one has a special ability. Violet is a juvenile inventor who can come up with solutions to problems that outrival the best of MacGyver. Klaus has a photographic mind for everything he reads (like 15 books on sailing). Little Sunny, who likes to bite on things, has the jaws of a titanium clamp.
They are rich. Very rich. They live in castle-like comfort on their parents' estate. Until, that is, it mysteriously burns to the ground. The Baudelaire parents perish; the children survive only to be placed by blunder-headed bureaucrat Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) into the care of Count Olaf (Carrey), whom he considers their closest living relative. Poe seems to be under the impression that this means geographical proximity, and the count lives just a few blocks away.
This proves to be a blunder of potentially lethal consequences for the poor orphans with a sizable fortune. Olaf makes no bones about his true intentions, which is to eradicate the trio and claim their inheritance. No deep thinker, his methods are as obvious as his avarice, starting with trapping his victims in his locked car on the railroad tracks as a train is bearing down. Ever-resourceful Violet puts a few items together from what's in the car to escape oblivion.
This attempt on the kids' lives doesn't sit well with Mr. Poe, who may now be taking more seriously their misgivings about Count Olaf's evil nature. (Duh!) Poe then places his charges into the care of python-scarved Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), weird, but a far more sympathetic relation. But when this snake-loving Scotsman dies under strange circumstances, the kids go to off-the-edge Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) who lives in a house with a rickety foundation on the side of a vertical cliff, giving new meaning to the term precarious. The single-note Olaf proves to be a relentless threat, popping up under one persuasive disguise after another with a series of artless stratagems to grab some spoils.
Director Brad Silberling's and writer Robert Gordon's version of Daniel Handler's first three Lemony Snicket books makes so many leaps of logic and doltish character choices, they strain an adult's ability to enjoy the tale and appreciate its source. Mr. Poe's supposed ignorance of what would be evident to a moron, for example, is a simplistically caricatured device to move the story to its various episodes. On the other hand, there are touches of humor that work well, such as the onscreen translation of infant Sunny's sweet gurglings.
But such rays of sunshine don't make the dark and nightmarish fantasy go away, and it might not be such a fun time for sensitive teens and tots in the theatre -- even with a redemptive ending. The problem is that the true hero of the piece, the dominating character, is the villain. With the three underage victims required to courageously escape time after time, it's the ubiquitous Count Olaf who moves the drama and demands the attention. He's the three-ton elephant in the frame, and he's a study in undiluted, flamboyant treachery. Against this guy, Scrooge is a role model. It's hard to imagine that a series of episodes constructed around such an undisguised demon -- even with the Carrey portfolio of rubber faces -- will amount to widespread support. But long lines at the box office seem inevitable, made up of the legions of Snicket book fans, the lovers of Carrey shtick, and admirers of technical achievement.
Bill Corso's makeup and costumes by Colleen Atwood and Donna O'Neal are part of an outstanding visual package that includes the world class work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Cat in the Hat), and the rich and clever production design by Rick Heinrichs. But, compared to other movies with a similar literary pedigree, this fairy tale will leave some of us shaking our heads thinking that the most unfortunate of the events is the shadowy adaptation of the author's creations and the fact that we didn't leave the theatre for a happier film, as narrator Snicket wickedly advises us to do in the prologue.
The DVD includes more extras than you could possibly ever watch, including 15 minutes of outtakes, commentary from Silberling, and behind the scenes short flicks. A second disc includes much more making-of footage.
Well, this morning actually.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th December 2004
Box Office USA: $118.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $209.1M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, Kumar Mobiliengesellschaft mbH & Co. Projekt Nr. 2 KG, Scott Rudin Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Fresh: 114 Rotten: 45
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Brad Siberling
Producer: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes
Screenwriter: Robert Gordon
Starring: Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Jude Law as Lemony Snicket (voice), Emily Browning as Violet Baudelaire, Kara Hoffman as Sunny, Shelby Hoffman as Sunny, Liam Aiken as Klaus, Timothy Spall as Mr. Poe, Catherine O'Hara as Justice Strauss, Billy Connolly as Uncle Monty, Luis Guzmán as Bald man, Jamie Harris as Hook-Handed Man, Craig Ferguson as Person of Indeterminate Gender, Jennifer Coolidge as White Faced Woman, Jane Adams as White Faced Woman, Cedric the Entertainer as Constable, Bob Clendenin as Grocery Clerk, Lenny Clarke as Gruff Grocer, John Dexter as Gustav, Deborah Theaker as Mrs. Poe, Fred Gallo as Judge