“Mishaps. Mayhem. Misadventures. ... We're very concerned. ... Don't say we didn't warn you.”
The tagline above catches some of the flavor of this very entertaining film. Life often presents quite daunting problems to those who may not seem best able to surmount them. This film presents several themes. Perhaps the most dominant shows resourceful, courageous and inventive young people meeting life's challenges head on. In surmounting their problems they show qualities of self-reliance, bravery and ingenuity. They also uncover and begin to solve several mysteries surrounding those problems.
The movie begins with extreme irony, but I won't say more about that and leave it for a surprise. A narrator: Lemony Snicket (Jude Law), warns the viewing audience that this story won't be like the one pictured in the opening sequence. He then introduces the Baudelaire children: Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) saying a few words about each. Violet, the oldest, invents from items at hand. Klaus, the middle child, reads for knowledge and remembers all he has read. Sunny, the youngest, does not yet speak in words and likes to bite things.
As the main story actually begins the Baudelaire children are shown at Briny Beach. Emerging from the fog, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall): a banker and executor of the Baudelaire estate, informs them of an “extremely unfortunate event.” He tells the children that their parents have died in a fire that also destroyed their home. After they view the ruins of their home, Mr. Poe takes them to their “nearest relative”: Count Olaf, an actor. Arriving at the Count's domicile, they also meet the Count's neighbor: Justice Strauss (Catherine O'Hara).
When left with Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) at his decrepit and untidy house, the life of the Baudelaire orphans takes on “fairy tale” qualities often associated with their unfortunate situation. After a brief tour of his strange environs, Olaf leads the orphans to the cramped room and single bed they all will share. Each day Olaf assigns the orphans a new list of many tasks. The day he brings his acting troupe home, he surprises his wards with the task of preparing dinner for him and his guests. They rise to the occasion against tremendous odds: no cooking tools, few ingredients; but deliver a dinner. However, it wasn't the dinner which Count Olaf wished, although he had not made his wishes known. They end the day in their room, but make the best of their situation by creating a small sanctuary from their harsh conditions taking pleasure in sharing each others company.
Count Olaf seems far less than a proper guardian, but the court still gives him custody. After leaving court, Olaf takes the children for a ride in the country. When they approach a small convenience store, Olaf stops his car (an ancient Imperial) and polls them for what they'd like from the store. As he goes into the store he locks the car doors and windows.
The children notice that he has parked the car on railroad tracks. Only through their own ingenuity do they save themselves from collision with a train. Mr. Poe finds them shortly after their nearly fatal experience. Even though he fails to grasp what actually occurred, he still takes the children from Olaf's custody and places them with their Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly): a herpetologist. However, they haven't yet seen the last of Count Olaf.
Categorizing this movie presents a challenge. It surely has many tragic aspects, but overall it may be best described as a comedy. It has serious and important themes about the capability of young people, the inadequacy of “justice systems” and the mixed nature of the world in which we live. However, the situations are often outrageous and seemingly exaggerated for comedic effect. The movie excels by developing a stunning visual character through camera work, effects and special settings.
If Jim Carrey suits your taste then you should love this film. If not, you might still like it as the children and their other supporting characters: Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) show the values attainable from family, friendship and perseverance in the face of hardship. I enjoyed Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events immensely. I think you will too.