Release Date:  December 17, 2004
Rating:  PG (for thematic elements, scary situations and brief language)
Genre:   Adventure/Fantasy/Comedy
Run Time: 1 hr. 53 min.
Director:   Brad Silberling
Actors:   Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Billy Connolly, Timothy Spall, Kara and Shelby Hoffman

Before I put pen to paper – or, as the case may be, fingertips to keyboard – I feel compelled to warn you that this is not the most usual of reviews.  In fact, it is a review that may well leave you feeling alarmed, concerned or possibly even laughing hysterically (a word which means, like a baboon being tickled under its arm or, in this case, simply smiling).

The reason for this, as it shall soon be obvious, is that the tale under scrutiny is not one for the faint of heart.  For, unlike other stories which insist upon happy endings, this tale is about the Baudelaire children, who experienced a series of most unfortunate events, beginning with the tragic death of their parents.  And, while the three Baudelaire children do overcome their difficulties, it is not until the very end, and it is only in spite of the machinations (a word meaning illegal, immoral and possibly even French behavior) of a notorious villain, that they do prevail.  So if it is happy endings you desire – or reviews that do not sound like this writer has been swallowed by a Victorian novelist – then I must advise you to seek elsewhere.

Violet Baudelaire (Emily Browning) is 14 and has a great talent for inventing things.  Her brother, Klaus (Liam Aiken), reads every sort of book that comes his way – no small number, considering the vast library that has been at his disposal in the Baudelaire family mansion.  A bright young man, just like his older sister, Klaus remembers everything that he reads, which comes in very handy during the children’s travails.  Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), their sister, is just an infant, but she has an uncanny (meaning, sometimes at a good time, sometimes at a bad one) ability to bite things.  And while she speaks only in grunts and squeals, her brother and sister are able to interpret her perfectly (and so are we, thanks to subtitles).  Sunny is also very insightful and droll (that is, insulting at times), when it comes to human behavior.

After Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), the family banker, announces the terrible news of their parents’ demise in a fire that consumed the family estate, the Baudelaires are escorted to live with the horrible Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who lives in a home that might well, under normal circumstances, be mistaken for a rubbish heap.  There, the children are forced to sleep in one very tiny bed, in a dark and musty room.  Olaf also forces them to do chores that no adult under the age of 30 or over the age of 29 should ever have to do.  Once, he even hits poor Klaus.  You see, I did warn you that this was not a cheery story. 

The reason for Olaf’s despicable behavior is that he wants the Baudelaire family fortune, and is willing to do anything, including eating stale Pasta Putanesca and placing the children on train tracks in the face of an oncoming train, to get it.  When that fails, the children are taken to live with their eccentric (a word meaning, someone completely obsessed with snakes) Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly).  But Olaf disguises himself and finishes off the herpetological relative, much to the children’s horror.  Fortunately, their quick wit – and Sunny’s willingness to play with a python – saves them from being returned to Olaf’s care.

They go to live with their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a lovely widow with great affection for children, but who is afraid of most everything one could possibly imagine.  Josephine does not venture near her refrigerator, for fear that it will fall on her.  Nor does she eat avocadoes (the pit might stick in her throat) or use her doorknobs, which could explode at any moment.  That she lives in a rickety house perched precariously over a lake full of the same leeches that killed her husband seems to miss the poor woman entirely – unlike perfect grammar, Josephine’s specialty.  But Count Olaf manages to insert himself into their lives yet again, and it does not bode well at all for their grammatically-correct aunt.

At his wit’s end, Olaf attempts to marry Violet by kidnapping Sunny and locking her in a cage that hangs several stories high.  To carry out his plan, he stages a theatrical performance – his real love, after money, despite the fact that he is a most horrific actor.  But yet again, the children prevail.

This last story happens to be the first one in the book, for those who care about such things, and some of the other stories are cut short or even omitted.  But this rearranging of the narrative of the first three books (upon which the film is based), is a rather petty detail.  Rest assured that the film adheres quite strictly to not only the various plots, the tone and the magnificent characterization of the books, but also makes use of their excellent employ of the English language, which teaches children difficult words like persnickety and puerile.  The acting was, quite unanimously, inspired (Carrey is very, very good, as are Streep and the children), and was only topped by the most excellent sets and costumes (both of which are a combination of Victorian and Gothic).  Children – those who love dark tales, that is – will be most delighted, as was this reviewer.  It is quite the clever film, and it is not surprising that the 11 books in the series were not only the first to knock “Harry Potter” off the top of the New York Times children’s bestseller list, but have also remained there for more than 600 weeks combined, having sold more than 27 million copies worldwide.  Author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) must be very wealthy – er, happy – indeed.

Of course, it must be said that the message of both the film and the books is a humanist one (a word meaning, relying on humans – as opposed to animals, nature or especially, God – for solutions to all of their problems).  There is nothing spiritual about it, not one bit.  It is also a very dark tale indeed that, despite a strong history of this kind of writing in literature (most notably Victorian), may alarm certain parents because it teaches children that the world is an evil place and that few adults can be trusted (although the narrative, by Jude Law, attempts to overcome this message at the end).  Also disturbing to some may be the use of a few profanities (three muffled; one overt) and some questionable subtitles (such as “Bite me” and “Schmuck”) used to “interpret” Sunny’s babbles.  Such a shame.  So proceed with caution.

On the other hand, the film presents very clearly the battle that we all face, between good and evil.  It emphasizes the values of knowledge, reading and problem-solving for children.  And, as all stories must, it does end on a positive note, despite the author’s claims.  Count Olaf is still after the children and their considerable fortune, but they have learned that “as long as there is something to invent, something to read, and something to bite” – which there will, most assuredly, always be – “there will always be a way to create a sanctuary, however small, to comfort oneself.”  And in a world full of great peril – which this film does not hesitate to underscore, be well advised – this is a message that will no doubt fill many children with a sense of power.  That will be particularly important for those who live in what would clearly be considered powerless circumstances.

For young children, this is most assuredly not.  Far too many treacherous situations are portrayed that might well be difficult for those under 10 to separate from reality.  But for the older ones – those who enjoy a suspense-filled tale and whose parents are willing to explain that, unlike the Baudelaire children, they will never be alone, that most adults can indeed be trusted, and that the evil of the world has been soundly redeemed – this is a film that will be most enjoyable.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Mild.  Possible drinking of characters in one scene, but not obvious.
  • Language/Profanity:    Mild.  Three muffled obscenities, one overt one (“d—n”) and two questionable phrases (“shmuck” and “bite me”).
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:    Mild.  Man strokes chin of young girl and calls her beautiful; later tries to marry her.  Male actor wears dress and full make-up.
  • Violence:   Heavy (although mostly implied).  Parents perish in a fire which destroys family home.  Children are locked in car on train tracks, in the face of oncoming train.  Child is hit violently by adult, knocking him to ground.  Man is killed by another man, a death which is disguised.  Children are buffeted by tornado-like winds in house, narrowly avoid death from moving furniture and must escape from pier-like structure perched precariously above lake.  Woman is left to drown or be killed by leeches.  Baby is suspended in birdcage several stories about the ground, with older sibling climbing up to reach her, followed by a scuffle between child and adult.