- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

You can’t say it doesn’t warn you. Jude Law, the unseen narrator, tells viewers they should flee the joint if they want something warm and fuzzy. “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” isn’t warm and fuzzy.

He’s worth heeding, especially if you think you’re in for “The Incredibles” starring Jim Carrey.

“Lemony Snicket” is dark and disturbing. There’s a deadly house fire, borderline child abuse and an attempted triple murder — and that’s in the first 20 minutes. Later there are icky reptiles and shades of ephebophilia.

It’s also a pleasure, a darkly amusing gothic fantasy in the pre-Disney mold, which means it tries to impart to young viewers the very important news that life is not guaranteed, but is guaranteed to be messy.

Mr. Carrey’s physical feats are, as usual, hilarious. His sense of devious humor — he plays the villain — is scalpel-sharp. Combine the multiple personas he assumes here and his role earlier this year in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and 2004 looks something like a triumph for Mr. Carrey.

I have been told (by an Ivy League-educated astrologer — no kidding) that the central theme of the “Harry Potter” series is that adults are out to kill children and only the arts of magic can save them. Well, that’s unmistakably the theme here, except that old-fashioned ingenuity and smarts, not magic, play the saving role.

“Lemony Snicket” is the pseudonym of children’s book author Daniel Handler, on whose series the movie is based. The “series of unfortunate events” begins quickly. The Baudelaire mansion is torched in a mysterious fire. Mom and dad perish, and children Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Sunny (infant twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman) are left to navigate the vagaries of a clueless social service system.

Violet, the eldest, is a canny inventor. Klaus is a voracious reader. Sunny has a talent for biting and speaks in babble only her siblings understand. (We get priceless one-liner subtitles such as “Bite me.”)

A quick note about tone and setting: The movie, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki and designed by Rick Heinrichs, takes place in some vague, fairy-tale-ish simulacrum of the 1920s; the clothing is always formal and frou-frou; the cars are old-school. The story world is creepily empty of humans but full of arresting imagery derived from Brett Helquist’s illustrations.

Director Brad Silberling (“Moonlight Mile”) and screenwriter Robert Gordon pile on a succession of obstacles the Baudelaire children must overcome. They get steadily more disquieting.

First, they’re placed in the custody of a distant relative, Mr. Carrey’s Count Olaf, an ugly conniver who runs a derelict mansion and cavorts with grotesque-looking actors. He’s after the Baudelaire fortune, and the children know it. Yet their suspicions are continually ignored, a fate that Mr. Silberling emphasizes a tad too strenuously.

Next they end up in the “reptile room” of herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), who genuinely cares for the Baudelaires, as does Meryl Streep’s omniphobic Aunt Josephine. (She’s a scene-stealer.) Count Olaf turns up at every juncture in a new disguise, ready to ensnare the children.

“Lemony Snicket” felt too long to this adult, so I’m guessing its target 10-to-12-year-old demographic will get antsy at some point, too.

Nevertheless, they’ll come away with a little wisdom — provided they don’t scare easily.

***

TITLE: “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”

RATING: PG (Disturbing themes; scary images; brief profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Brad Silberling. Produced by Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes. Written by Robert Gordon, based on Daniel Handler’s books. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Production design by Rick Heinrichs. Score by Thomas Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.unfortunateeventsmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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