They may horrify tender-hearted parents, but the Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of Daniel Handler) are wildly popular with school-age kids.
“These books are among the most unpleasant in the world,” Snicket warns crisply on the dust jacket for the first three volumes, the basis for this film, “and if you do not have the stomach for such unpleasantries as a repulsive villain, a deadly serpent, cold cucumber soup, a terrible fire, and a doll named Pretty Penny, I would advise you to read three happy books instead.”
“Unfortunate events” is an understatement. The Baudelaire children are subjected to a series of guardians who are incompetent, foolish, predatory, and cruel. In fact, all of the adults in this movie are evil, weak, or stupid. And no one ever listens to the children. Adults can get rattled by situations that make Oliver Twist look like the Care Bears, but the children who are fans of the books delighted at the way Violet, Klaus, and Sunny manage to triumph over the direst of circumstances and the most fiendish of villians.
This movie begins as a sugary but slightly off animated tale about the littlest elf, but Mr. Snicket soon interrupts, explaining that this will be quite a different kind of story.
Violet (Emily Browning), an inventor, Klaus (Liam Akin), who reads everything, and 2-year-old Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who loves to bite things are on the beach when Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) from the bank comes to tell them that their house has burned down and their parents have been killed. He drives them to their nearest relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a man who calls out “Intrude!” instead of “Enter” when they knock on the door and who needs to have the children’s names written on his hands because he does not want to waste any time remembering them.
The Count puts the children to work and tries to kill them, but no one listens when they try to explain what is going on. But they finally get removed from his custody and subsequent guardians include a kindly herpetologist (Billy Connolly) and a multi-phobic grammarian (Meryl Streep). Count Olaf keeps coming back (sometimes in disguise). He wants the Baudelaire fortune and is ready to kill — or marry — anyone he has to in order to get it.
Some adults are genuinely horrified by the unabashedly creepy people in these books. It is disturbing to think of any children, even imaginary ones, being subjected to abuse. But Snicket’s talent is in understanding his audience better than anyone past the age of 12 usually can. Watch how careful he is to create an atmosphere of menace while leaving what is, if you look for it, a very reassuring zone of protection around the children. Other than one slap, the children are never touched and they never appear to be rattled or upset. The very presence of the narrator itself adds a comfortable distance. And it is always clear that if the solution isn’t found in one of Violet’s inventions or Klaus’ extensive knowledge from books, Sunny’s powerful teeth will save the day.
Family responses to this movie will depend on their taste for macabre humor. Those who are not intrigued and entertained by the grotesque storyline may find it disturbing. Fans of the book will enjoy seeing the characters and settings brought to life with great imagination and verve, though putting three books into one movie makes it episodic and draggy around the middle. The art direction is superb and the performances by both children and adults are excellent. The weakest parts of the movie are the intrusive product placement of the AFLAC duck (what is an insurance company selling in a movie for children?) and the subtitles that interpret Sunny’s babbling. The cheap humor and crude language is utterly out of tone with the rest of the film.
Parents should know that the movie may be upsetting to some children. The children in the movie are orphans who are continuously mistreated. There are constant scenes of peril and tension; though most of the violence is offscreen, we see the aftermath. An adult strikes a child and there are other assaults and murders and an apparent suicide. There is one scary surprise and several shots of creepy creatures, including rats, bugs, bats, and snakes. Some children will understand that this is intended as macabre humor but others will not, so parents should be particularly cautious about deciding whether the film is appropriate for their children. Other parental concerns include some very crude language “said” by a baby (“shmuck,” “bite me”), and a forced marriage with a 14-year-old (predatory, but only with regard to her money).
Families who see this movie should talk about how we learn to respond to the unexpected, and the importance of having a Plan B (and Plans C through Z). Some children will want to be reassured about who their guardians would be if something happens to their own parents. And families should talk about what messages they would want to read in a letter like the one from the Baudelaire parents and why books with such terrible abuse are so popular with kids.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Addams Family and Addams Family Values and Beetlejuice (all with more mature material than this film), the Addams Family and Munsters television series, and the works of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. And they might like to try to make pasta puttanesca!