You once again squeeze lemonade out of lemons.
— Brad Silberling, commentary, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Collector’s Edition
Anything for the kids.
— Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
“I must say, you’re a gloomy-looking bunch. Why so glum?” Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) greets the newly orphaned Baudelaire children with typical self-absorption, responding their reminder that they are indeed recently orphaned with a flip, “Oh yes” feigning ignorance because it’s easier than sympathy. An actor who surrounds himself with dreadful, admiring troupe-mates, Olaf is a dastardly sort, not to mention loud and ghastly as only Jim Carrey can be.
Elastic and not a little ewwwy, Olaf is fond of his own unclever pronouncements (“Imagine my surpreese!”) and unsubtle when it comes to plotting a “series of unfortunate events” to befall the kiddies. This even as his story, here played in lanky silhouette bent over a manual typewriter by Jude Law. As this know-it-all narrator informs you, the kids’ parents are killed in a sudden fire.
Their subsequent deposit with Olaf is is horrifying from jump. He’s pleased to have three about-to-be-wealthy orphans arrive on his doorstep. He makes his glee and self-love plain enough as he first greets them, remembering their names by scribbling them on his palms. Each has a particular “trait,” which Olaf soon learns to despise: 14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning) invents things, Klaus (Liam Aiken) is a reader, and infant Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) is a biter. She’s also given to digitized lurches and gestures, though she’s awfully cute and so is granted the lion’s share of reaction shots, not to mention subtitles, so that her gurgles reveal sanctimonious insights into the adults who would rule their world, calling them names or otherwise undermining their obviously questionable authority, as in, “Bite me.”
Indeed, the child’s appearance is technically elaborate, as explained in detail on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Collector’s Edition. As director Brad Silberling notes in his commentary (one of two “Alarming Audio Commentaries” on Disc One, the other involving Silberling again, plus the “real Lemony Snicket,” a.k.a. hammy author Daniel Handler), Sunny was played by twins, enhanced by digital mouth effects. Silberling’s comments are matter of fact and informative, proud of the improvisation he had the cast engage. He describes all kinds of details with regard to his thinking about the project, on reading the books (“I was absolutely floored by the sense of subversiveness and playfulness that the author had gotten away with. Frankly, I was shocked that he’d actually found a publisher for these books”), on the use of on-set décor and props (“The core decision with the film was, ‘Let’s kind of go back to an older age in Hollywood when we were literally designing everything on stage”); and on his admiration for Browning, whom he met when she was 14 (“I feel like I’m certainly dealing with somebody far more mature than I am”).
Disc One also includes deleted (“orphaned”) scenes, outtakes, make-up tests for Jim Carrey (“Building a Bad Actor”), and “Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable,” concerning the casting of the woeful youngsters. Disc Two features making-of docs galore (two and a half hours worth), concerning basic production, Violet’s inventions, ILM effects (the making of CGI and animatronic Sunnys), sound design, and Thomas Newman’s score.
All of these elements add up in the film to a layering of tones and insights, though the kids — as played by Browning and Aiken — are hands down its most enthralling effects. When not in Olaf’s nefarious clutches, they are looked after by the snuffly executor of their parents’ estate, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), who takes to depositing them serially, as each prospective caretaker ends up being unethical or dead. The first and most persistent is Olaf; after the failure of his first idea (to lock the children in a car to be squished by an oncoming train), he undertakes to disguise himself — as a nerdy scholar, a peg-legged sea captain — in order to regain access to their fortune. Only the children see through his wigs and affectations, which makes them increasingly untrusting of adults to provide the sanctuary they so dearly desire.
Based on three Snicket books, the film mostly takes the kids’ perspective, and so delights in the gooey and the ooky, even it posits their admirable morality and endless ingenuity. “Basically,” says Silberling, I just baited the kids into really expressing truthfully all of what they read these boos for, what the tone is that they respect, and what they absolutely rebel against having sanitized from the film.” The kids’ cleverness is underlined visually in their outfits and demeanors — sensitive yet rebellious, sweet yet edgy. In a word, goth-lite. Violet’s perfectly braided hair, fishnet sleeves, and black boots, Klaus’ button trousers, and little Sunny’s Victorianish dresses all suggest these kids are classically under duress, but never unkempt, only a little out of time.
These costumes make the children look like many kids feel at some point, out of time with their moments, their surroundings, even their families. As they endeavor to escape the clutches of the odious Olaf, they come briefly into the care of other non-relatives, including the terminally cheerful snake-lover Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and the unreservedly phobic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), who warns the children not to stand near the Frigidaire, for “If it falls, it will crush you flat.”
Once the kids think they’re safe with Josephine, they are not. Silberling describes the “wonderful Rube Goldberg chain of events,” in which all of Josephine’s “fears come true” — the refrigerator “walks,” the doorknob shatters, the house is destroyed. And the kids endure, as they do each event engineered by Olaf. Violet’s brilliant inventions allow miraculous escapes, leading their nemesis to grander and more awful schemes, which include killing off several characters and even arranging for his marriage to young Violet (which is legal so long as her guardian approves, and oh yes, he’s her guardian).
Such violence is of a piece with the terrible accidents and despicable deeds that drive most fairy tales: in A Series of Unfortunate Events, most of dismembering and penetrating takes place off screen anyway, which only makes it, appropriately, more awful. And of course, it’s a common business to orphan children in children’s fare, and then deploy subsequent hardships to emphasize their ethical and other fortitudes.
The Baudelaire children survive because they stick together — each of their special gifts is crucial, they comfort one another when they’re most depressed. They learn the usual lessons, for instance, that home is not necessarily traditional, but really anyplace where you feel safe, a sanctuary amid turmoil. And so, while they may be ensconced in scary attics or a cave alongside the appalling Lake Lacrimose (where leeches with teeth leap onto rowboats, looking to chew up their victims in minutes), the kids maintain their difference. Not so Olaf, whose bizarre appearances — from his mutton chops to his hook nose to his plaid pants — rather fit such environments. Slightly less able to blend in to the cartoonish ruckus, the well-meaning but repeatedly outfoxed detective played by Cedric the Entertainer shows up intermittently, looking for all the world like he’s wandered into the wrong movie.