Mixed Reviews Part 5: “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”

My ownership of A Series of Unfortunate Events was part of my attempt to build a collection of Christmas movies. I am aware that it is not a true Christmas movie. It has nothing to do with Christmas. But you know what? Most Christmas movies have nothing to do with Christmas. The other yuletide DVDs I own, The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, don’t involve the birth of Christ. “The reason for the season” does not factor into even the most celebrated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life. Before film, A Christmas Carol and A Visit From St. Nicholas became favorites without involving Jesus either. All you need for a good Christmas story are familial structure (not necessarily traditional) and feelings of hope and childlike wonder. That’s why A Series of Unfortunate Events qualifies.

The movie’s about three siblings named Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire (played by Liam Aiken, Emily Browning and Kara and Shelby Hoffman) who suddenly lose their parents to a mysterious house fire. A creepy con artist named Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) presents himself as their distant-but-somehow-closest living relative in order to gain their sizable inheritance. When Olaf’s first attempt at guardianship fails, the Baudelaires are passed around to different previously unheard-of relatives, including herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connelly) and neurotic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). Count Olaf doesn’t let that stop his pursuit of the children’s fortune, however, and he employs a number of quirky schemes that are often thwarted by the siblings’ unique talents. Often, but not all the time. For every time that they outwit the Count, there is a time where he is the victor. The Baudelaires learn early that the world can be cruel, but they have each other to prove that it’s not entirely so.

There’s a lot to love about A Series of Unfortunate Events. For one thing, the movie looks beautiful with its steampunk-ish setting and whimsical costumes and makeup. It has an equally whimsical supporting cast that includes Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer, Craig Ferguson, Luis Guzman and Jennifer Coolidge as well an inexplicable cameo from Dustin Hoffman. There’s a rich score from Thomas Newman that matches the moody-yet-fanciful visuals and story.

A Series of Unfortunate Events‘s mixed reviews didn’t help it, but I don’t blame its lackluster box office performance entirely on them. You see, if you’re going to make a Gothic children’s movie, it needs to have two particular things:

  1. It must be based on a familiar story. By that I mean multiple generations have grown up with it, not just those who are into then-current best-selling children’s books. Or at the very least, it should have a premise universal enough that it can be sold in two words, like “Boy wizard”. The most concise way I can sum up A Series of Unfortunate Events is “Creep chases orphans”. That sounds like an episode of Dateline, which isn’t the kind of familiarity that parents want in their kids’ movies.
  2. It must be directed by Tim Burton. Only he is allowed to make Gothic movies as far as audiences are concerned. If he had directed A Series of Unfortunate Events and it had starred Johnny Depp, the public would have eaten it up.  Incidentally, A Series of Unfortunate Events came out in 2004, right on the cusp of the Burton/Depp Gothic Children’s Movie Reign of Terror.

Yet while they would have pulled in the numbers, I don’t think Burton and Depp would have made A Series of Unfortunate Events any better. Although Carrey is a bit grating in his early scenes and Streep is too shrill, the main problems with the movie have to do with the script. Because the movie’s based on the first three books of the series, it has a lot of story to cover and its 107 minute run time doesn’t allow it to catch its breath between Olaf’s schemes. It would have been nice to see the Baudelaires taking a few seconds to enjoy their successes. Instead, they’re constantly in peril, and the familial bond that should be at the center of the movie is featured only at the beginning and the end. It’s unfortunate because those moments are the best parts of the movie. Those moments are what made me want A Series of Unfortunate Events in my Christmas movie collection. Like the Baudelaires, the children of my family consist of an older brother and sister with myself as the baby. In fact, my brother’s the one who gave me the first three Lemony Snicket books in the first place because they looked like the Roald Dahl stories we liked so much as kids. And like the Baudelaire children, I know that my siblings and I could survive anything together.

But I don’t need to own the movie to remind myself of those sentiments. I will be sending A Series of Unfortunate Events to the used bookstore.

By the way, if you’re looking for a specifically Christian movie this Christmas season, I can still help. As a Christian, the closest thing I’ve had to spiritual experience while watching a movie is when I saw The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s about an angel showing Jesus what it would have been like if He got down off the cross, abandoned His ministry and lived a normal life. You could probably get the same thing if you just watch It’s A Wonderful Life and interpret George Bailey as a Christ figure.

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