PG. While a lot of kids' movies have child endangerment as a motif, this movie is about child endangerment throughout. The whole story, child endangerment. The Baudelaires' parents die in a horrible fire. It's pretty bleak throughout. The movie even prides itself on its bleak tone, so there's nothing that should be too shocking about the fact that the movie is actually as bleak as it claims to be. PG.
DIRECTOR: Brad Silberling
It's so odd to see a movie that never really had the chance to finish itself. A Series of Unfortunate Events chronicles the first three novels out of twelve of a series. But there are no other movies. This is it. With films like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, there was the knowledge that the story would be completed in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. But with Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, that story would never be completed. So what have we left? We have a movie that feel like a long episode of TV. It's like finding a pilot for a show that was never picked up. Keep all this in mind as I rant like I do daily. I already apologize.
The story of the Baudelaire children is actually pretty great. I regularly tell my students that I love bleak endings. I don't know what it is about stories aimed for kids and adolescents that are just dour miseryfests. (That's one word I just coined, not two.) My daughter was really into the books for a while. She burns through franchises brightly, but also really quickly, It was our bedtime book series for a while and I loved doing my Patrick Warburton impression as I read them to her. See, I'm a fan of the Netflix series more than the films. The films are fine, but the films also represent exactly what I know about this franchise. I know...the first three books. I watched the episodes of...the first three books. It talked about exactly what I know about this series and nothing else. For me, and please feel free to ruin this for me, I believe Lemony Snicket.
The conceit is that this story will not have a happy ending. The Baudelaire children will encounter misery after misery, escape that misery, and then encounter new misery. From an episodic storyteller's perspective, that's actually kind of fun. Ultimately, they have to meet some kind of doom and gloom. I am not a fool. (Or maybe I am?) I have to believe that Lemony Snicket, the narrator, is lying to me to a certain extent. I can't imagine that an eight-year-old kid has the entire book series, gets to the end of book 12 or 13 and just discovers that the children are horribly massacred. I imagine that the sadness that they experience when everything is nicely wrapped up comes more in the form of some existential crisis. The hounding of Count Olaf put to an end, Klaus grows up to be an accountant and regrets never having an adventure again, or something like that. But the odd irony of the series never finishing is that I actually am delivered the narrator's promise. I will never know if the Baudelaires find any modicum of happiness shy of being free of Count Olaf for this moment.
I think I realized that I'm going to have a hard time divorcing the film from its source material. The way that the books are written are completely conducive to adapting them to film because the story is mostly about mood and nothing else. That sounds like I'm putting down the books and the film. Absolutely not. The way the film is laid out spreads out the plot of "The Bad Beginning" over the course of the three stories. For die hard fans of the book series, this means that the film takes a handful of liberties. As a loose fan, I think that the movie does exactly what the books set out to do: tell a bleak story about children escaping the fiendish schemes of the nefarious Count Olaf. But in terms of plot, this isn't one story. It's three. This movie condenses a lot of pages into a fairly short package. I went on a long tirade about this when it came to The Dark Tower, with the condensing of A LOT of text into an itty bitty movie.
It is far less of a problem here than it is in The Dark Tower, but the issues are the same. There's nothing at all really wrong with A Series of Unfortunate Events. It has a lot of the same elements that made the books series so beloved. But the studio didn't really seem to have faith in the project. This might be a hard sell. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the fact that there aren't sequels to this film, the studio was kinda sorta proven right. This is the chronology of a studio acquiring an interesting property and having no idea how to properly handle it. The Netflix series might actually prove what I'm saying as accurate. The Netflix series has a moderate amount of success. It's not like we're talking Stranger Things numbers, but the Netflix adaptation of the Lemony Snicket books garner a fair amount of attention. The model of the series is that each book garners two full length episodes, or the equivalent of a feature film. The content is there in the books to justify giving each book a certain amount of attention.
When the film divides the three books into a single film, it only moderately services the fans of the books to begin with and it does that quite poorly. When I saw this movie in the theater (I couldn't tell you why that was the movie on the list to watch), I remember enjoying it and having a certain degree of "so what"? We never really get to feel the stress of every situation. The structure of the film is that Count Olaf presents a threat to the children. The children, through deduction, solve the problem to that threat and are then taken to a new location where they will solve the problems of a new threat. We never really get to understand how and why the characters work. Instead, it's a game of leap frog. The story becomes about the conflict and not about the characters.
This is against the very conceit of the story itself. The adventures are there to tell fun stories and to give the stories a bit of structure. I don't want to downplay how fun these stories are. They are. That's what the movie does understand and gets right. But they are also tales of orphans who have very specific skills and very specific hangups. The fact that the narrator reminds us that this is a sad story is really important and we get that both in the books and in the television show. But by condensing three books into one movie, it becomes about the adventure and not about the people. Sunny has personality automatically because she's a baby. A baby doing non baby things is hilarious and all of her personality is on display from moment one. But Klaus and Violet are practically the same character. When gender comes into play in the film, that's the only time that they are differentiated. Instead, we never get to understand the struggles that these characters go through. Instead, we're looking to Count Olaf, who oddly has more depth than the protagonists of this story.
Honestly, it's really smart to have Jim Carrey play Count Olaf, especially in a movie formatted the way it is. Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from A Series of Unfortunate Events is a reminder that Jim Carrey is returning to his man-of-a-thousand-characters rubber face right now. I remember not wanting to see the movie because the trailer sold the film as such. He's a great Count Olaf. It's absolutely perfect to see him shift on a dime between characters. (Yeah, I know that they are filmed at separate times.) But that's the conceit of the film. Jim Carrey is going to play different versions of the same character, similar to Orphan Black or The Nutty Professor. It's a fun gimmick, but's also a sideshow act.
I enjoy the movie. I enjoy the books enough to read them with my daughter. But this is one of those cases that feels like it could be so much more than it actually was. I can smell the studio all over this movie and picking and prodding at it. There is so much that could have happened with this franchise that a disappointing movie that shortens some of the adventures is a disservice to something that could have been really fun.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.