Author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, makes a great show of warning children and their parents away from his work by telling them that they'll find nothing happy or pleasurable about his books—and now his movie. "The movie you're about to see is extremely unpleasant," Snicket intones as the film begins. Press notes warn of a "sinister villain and a hair-raising misadventure" during which viewers "will encounter a terrible fire, dim lighting, high tragedy, a giant snake, low comedy, man-eating leeches and Jim Carrey." Therefore, Snicket concludes, feel "free to seek lighter fare, like a documentary about cheese fondue."
Naturally, such manufactured tongue-in-cheek glumness has only made Lemony Snicket all the more popular. He's written and published 11 A Series of Unfortunate Events books so far. All of them are smash hits with kids around the world; the first book alone has sold just shy of 20 million copies and has been translated into nearly 20 languages.
On the movie screen, Snicket's Roald Dahl-inspired writing takes on a decidedly Tim Burton-esque tone as raw imagination meets Hollywood ingenuity and artistry that combines 19th century backdrops and 20th century props with 21st century sensibilities. Director Brad Silberling calls the result a "collision of tenses." Let me explain. When they're inside, the book's clever Baudelaire children and their clueless—sometimes murderous—adult counterparts ramble through aging mansions. Outside, they drive about in rusted-out 1950s-era Detroit-mobiles equipped with, believe it or not, telephones, reel-to-reel tape decks and remote keyless entry systems. Modern cultural references layered on top of that patchwork include a hilariously short cameo appearance by the AFLAC duck.
This is the fabulously fanciful world in which Violet (14), Klaus (12) and Sunny (1) Baudelaire suddenly become orphans and are thrust into a cascading series of most unfortunate events. Their continuing misfortune bears a name: Count Olaf, supposedly their closest relative, an actor of hideous intentions and unbridled greed. It becomes painfully clear that Olaf is only interested in the vast fortune the children have inherited, and that he will go so far as to kill to keep it all to himself.
Many recent "kids' movies" have actually been targeting adults with their moral messages. Shark Tale, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, just to name a few, all seem to be talking to grown-ups. A Series of Unfortunate Events speaks directly to children, telling them that they can overcome anything that goes wrong. Surrounded by terrible circumstances far beyond the reality faced by most children, the Baudelaires band together, reach deep inside for strength and refuse to succumb.
Noticeably absent from the Baudelaires' conversation is grumbling and complaining about their lot in life. Sure, there are a few moments devoted to strenuous objections over their bizarrely unfair situation, but they seem to always try to make the best of things. When Olaf orders them to cook dinner but refuses to provide them with the ingredients and utensils to do so, for instance, they actually turn their task into something of a game, and do everything they can to lighten the dour mood.
The siblings take great comfort in the fact that they have not been separated, and consistently carve out for themselves a "home" no matter where they've been shuffled off to. In one touching scene, they erect a small tent inside the room Olaf has locked them in, decorate it with a silhouette cutout of their beloved parents and play quietly—and happily—together until they fall asleep.
The Baudelaires' one-for-all, all-for-one bond also exhibits itself in selfless, heroic actions. Each works hard to overcome fear and plays a role in protecting the others. It's a nobility that's never more noticeable than in the film's climax when Klaus and Violet both risk their lives (in very different ways) to save Sunny.
Additionally, Violet's inventiveness and Klaus' love for reading are portrayed as super-cool. Their memories of their parents are full of love, security and fun, and they resist the temptation to begin blaming them for the terrible straits in which they find themselves.
It can be argued that the positivity of "reaching deep inside oneself" to overcome obstacles is mitigated somewhat by an absence of spiritual direction. True strength doesn't come from our core; it comes from God. And that's a lesson glaring in its omission.
After the children are taken away from him and given to their Aunt Josephine, Count Olaf tries to worm his way back into their life by donning one of his many costumes (disguises) and pretending to court her. His advances are accompanied by a single, sly, sexual innuendo.
[Spoiler Warning] While the film never delves into any sexual implications, it's a bit unnerving to watch Olaf coerce Violet into marrying him. Begging him not to go through with the evil plan, Violet confronts him with the fact that she's only 14, and that she can't be legally wed yet. He counters by informing her that she can if her guardian OKs it—and "I'm your guardian," he cackles.
Actual depictions of violence are the exception. The rule is intense portrayals of the anticipation and fear of violence. In a scene that evokes memories of the electric eels seen in The Princess Bride, Aunt Josephine and the children paddle frantically in their flimsy rowboat while being pursued by giant—teeth-equiped—leeches. When the children are locked inside a car that Olaf parks on a set of train tracks, things get pretty nerve-racking as they desperately attempt to avoid being bulldozed by an oncoming locomotive. And when a storm tears apart Aunt Josephine's lakeside house, Violet, Klaus and Sunny barely survive as the structure crumbles around them.
At first you think Olaf is simply a money-grubbing grouch. But it quickly becomes apparent that he's not just mean (as he is when he slaps Klaus across the face or when he terrifies the children with a large hunting knife), he's murderous. He laughs maniacally as the train races toward them. He callously threatens Sunny's life (he places her in a rough birdcage, then suspends it precariously from a tall tower), using her to force Violet to marry him. And it's implied that he offs one of the Baudelaires' uncles and one of their aunts. One he leaves for the leeches to devour (offscreen); the other he apparently poisons, making it look like a snake bite.
The Baudelaire parents are killed in a fire (all that's seen is a smoldering house). It's implied that Olaf steals a man's identity by waylaying him and tying him to the front of a train to dispose of him. A man with hooks for hands attacks Klaus. Klaus pushes Olaf down. Performing in a play, Olaf chops up a mannequin.
In a scene that is not so much violent as it is scary and uncomfortable, Sunny toddles over to a huge snake and proceeds to let it wrap itself around her as she plays with it. (Earlier, that same snake scared all of the children by suddenly thrusting itself into their faces and hissing at them.)
Crude or Profane Language
Olaf blurts out "d--mit" and "a--." God's name is used as an interjection twice; the expression "jumped-up Jehovah" once. In subtitles, Sunny calls Olaf a "schmuck" and says to him, "Bite me."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Olaf offers port to a guest. Minor characters sneak drinks from a bottle and flask.
Other Negative Elements
Adults are not people you can count on in the Baudelaires' world. They're either dead, crazy, mean, greedy, inept, spineless, forgetful or obtuse. At one point Klaus begs his sister to call the authorities to help them out of their latest jam, but Violet reminds him that grown-ups have never really helped them before, so why should they bother to go to them now? We have to do this ourselves, she tells him. This plot predicament gives rise to positivity, as already discussed, but it also furthers an imbedded entertainment mantra: that adults are not to be trusted with important kid stuff.
Credited as a Person of Indeterminate Gender, a male member of Olaf's acting troupe dresses in dresses both onstage and off. After clamping down on to Olaf's leg, Sunny warns him that if he doesn't shape up she'll "bite higher."
Dark and dreary. Imaginative and hopeful. That's the dichotomy voiced by Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket's pre-movie warning about how unhappy his story is may be a literary bauble, but it bears a measure of truth. And the film will be too much for some children, even some tweens. One such girl, sitting behind me at the screening I attended, turned to her dad as the credits began rolling and lamented, "Why did there have to be so many unfortunate events? I was scared so often!"
Parents should be prepared for questions about the possibility of their own deaths and how such an unfortunate event would affect their youngsters. I can't imagine that children wouldn't have that apprehension on the tips of their tongues after watching. While they might not actually bring it up, they'll certainly be thinking about it.
But the dark tones that are painted on this canvas are quite unlike those seen in cultural peer Harry Potter. Magic and sorcery don't muddy things up here. It's pure imagination that powers Lemony Snicket's world. And that's a huge relief. Violet and Klaus don't stay one step ahead of their troubles by casting spells, they do it by drawing on the internal resources they've accumulated by reading and by inventing.
That opens the door wider for a positive interaction with the story. And it gives kids struggling with their own unfortunate circumstances—be they as insignificant as the death of a pet hamster or as looming and oppressive as the divorce of their parents, abuse or neglect—something to identify with and maybe even a handle of sorts to hold on to. After all, "If Violet and Klaus can make it, then so can I!"
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Kids
Jim Carrey as Count Olaf; Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine; Jude Law as the voice of Lemony Snicket; Emily Browning as Violet Baudelaire; Liam Aiken as Klaus Baudelaire; Kara and Shelby Hoffman as Sunny Baudelaire
Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile, City of Angels, Casper)
Steven Isaac Steven Isaac