Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 16 News List

'Lemony Snicket's' heroes brave Hollywood

Charming children's books often provide good big screen entertainment, but the latest Daniel Handler adaptation is a little bit tame

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

There is something irresistible about children's books with under-age heroes named Baudelaire and something diabolical in that two of those tots are called Sunny and Klaus.

Those unfamiliar with the cycle of books called A Series of Unfortunate Events written by Lemony Snicket, the nom de plume of Daniel Handler, might be alarmed at these macabre allusions, particularly since the heroes in question are 14, 12 and a baby of indeterminate age but exceptional biting power. But it's comforting that the spirit of Roald Dahl lives and that child readers haven't been completely subjected to the tyranny of nice.

Since the publication of the first book in the Unfortunate series several years ago, the three Baudelaire children -- Violet, Klaus and Sunny -- have been trying to find safe harbor in a world fraught with danger. For 11 consecutive books, the children have passed from the care of one well-intentioned adult after another, braving the sort of peril usually faced by silent-screen heroines named Pauline and leaving a trail of corpses in their wake.

To date, the cause of their misfortunes has been their one-time guardian, Count Olaf, who hopes to steal their fortune. But now the characters have embarked on one of the most dangerous adventures known in literature: their story has been turned into a major Hollywood movie.

Like all of the Baudelaires' past adventures, this latest one is filled with fanciful menace, though here the overarching vibe is less gothic and more action-oriented.

Directed by Brad Silberling and written by Robert Gordon, the film is based on the first three books in the Unfortunate series and begins with the Baudelaires learning they have been orphaned. The bearer of this bad news is their parents' loyal but useless lawyer, Mr Poe (Timothy Spall), who whisks them off to their nearest living relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).

Film Notes

Directed by: Brad Silberling


Jim Carrey (Count Olaf), Liam Aiken (Klaus), Emily Browning (Violet), Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman (Sunny), Jude Law (Lemony Snicket), Timothy Spall (Mr Poe), Catherine O'Hara (Justice Strauss), Billy Connolly (Uncle Monty), Meryl Streep (Aunt Josephine) and Luis Guzman (Bald Man)

Running time: 108 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today

Violet, Klaus and Sunny collectively put on a brave face -- the three are played, respectively, by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and the twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman -- not yet aware of the threats posed by greedy relations and very big movie stars.

Things look dodgy as soon as the Baudelaires step foot in the count's moldering mansion. In this house of art-designed horror -- tricked out with creepy crawlers, peeling plaster and mounds of unspeakable filth -- the children soon discover their cousin's intentions.

Modest abuse ensues -- with the Baudelaires forced to make a puttanesca sauce from scratch -- as does a near-brush with death. There are serpentine twists and turns, including interludes with other distant relations, the first with a friendly snake charmer (Billy Connolly) and the second with a leech-fearing widow (Meryl Streep).

Throughout, the young actors playing the Baudelaires acquit themselves as admirably as do their characters, sidestepping an occasional bog of sentimentality and bringing a human touch to a production that -- as the big-studio is wont to do -- threatens to swallow them whole.

A Series of Unfortunate Events suffers from one of the most grievous maladies that can strike a children's film: notably a regrettable tendency to fill in all the quiet with noise. (Slangy idioms like "bite me" also creep into the screenplay, disrupting the high-arch tone of the books, which Silberling tries mightily to replicate.)

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