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Photo by Francois Duhamel

The enormously popular Lemony Snicket novels belong to
a vitally gloomy strain of kiddie lit that taps into the universal longing for
home and family, while joining it to a nasty suspicion that both are inherently
hard to find and keep. This may strike adults who believe that family life is
going straight to hell as a theme peculiar to our times, but such tales, which
have shown remarkable resilience all the way from the Brothers Grimm through
Dickens to Roald Dahl, speak to a fundamental human loneliness of which kids
are far more aware than we imagine.

That’s why being an orphan is a common fantasy of many children,
and it’s at least part of the reason why all 10 Lemony Snicket novels have made
a tidy fortune for their reclusive author, Daniel Handler, whose closely guarded
privacy has been blown by the arrival of a big-budget movie that collapses three
of his books into one. Brad Silberling, who made only one children’s movie,
Casper, before taking on the cumbersomely titled Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events
, faithfully follows the adventures of the
three Baudelaire siblings — Violet (Emily Browning), an inventor; Klaus (a very
good Liam Aiken), a budding scientist; and baby Sunny (played by twins Kara
and Shelby Hoffman, at 2 years old already alumni of General Hospital),
who has a useful talent for biting — who were orphaned when their loving parents
died in a mysterious fire. Now they spend their time being shunted from one
kindly but dubiously qualified caretaker to the next, while fending off their
distant relative and legal guardian Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a monster bent
on stealing their considerable family fortune.

Silberling has done an admirable job translating the Victorian-Gothic
ambiance of Handler’s novels. Lemony Snicket, which may be the world’s
first German Expressionist horror caper for kids, is a triumph of scary housing,
from the gutted Baudelaire mansion to Count Olaf’s filthy, packrat’s abode,
to a shack jutting precariously over a churning ocean. But Silberling and writer
Robert Gordon have made the fatal error of trying to jolly up the novels, which
are often funny but never, ever cute. The children’s hapless would-be protectors
— Billy Connolly as the snake-festooned Uncle Monty; Meryl Streep as their nervous
Nelly of an Aunt Josephine; and Catherine O’Hara as Count Olaf’s kindly neighbor
Justice Strauss — are played more for farce than pathos. The biggest culprit,
of course, is Carrey, who uses Count Olaf as an excuse to mug his way through
several other disguises. He’s as funny and inventive as ever, but he’s constantly
winking at his audience. This is something that Handler never does in his books,
which, for all their celebration of children’s creativity in hurdling obstacles
that stand in their way, also trust kids to stay the course of his bleak existentialism.
In the Lemony Snicket books, of which there’s a wonderful audio version read
by Tim Curry, the life of a child is largely about putting out fires and staying
afloat on a sea of uncertainty and hostile takeovers. The Victorians may have
liked their children more compliant than was necessary, but they never placed
upon them, as we selfishly do today, the insufferable burden of being constantly
happy.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS | Directed
by BRAD SILBERLING | Written by ROBERT GORDON Based on novels by DANIEL HANDLER
Produced by LAURIE MacDONALD, WALTER F. PARKES and JIM VAN WYCK | Released by
Paramount Pictures | Citywide

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