"A Series of Unfortunate Events" is actually the title of the entire book series, which deals with the endless misfortune heaped upon the three orphaned Baudelaire children -- 14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning), 12-year-old Klaus (Liam Aiken) and toddler Sunny (twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman). What enables the siblings to repeatedly survive their misfortune is nothing less than the strength of their combined skills -- Violet's gift for invention, Klaus' book-learned wealth of knowledge about nearly everything and Sunny's uncanny bite. The movie culls its tale from the first three of these books -- "The Bad Beginning," "The Reptile Room" and "The Wide Window" -- in which the children, having lost their parents and home to a massive fire, are shuttled between a variety of weird, distant relatives, followed at every turn by disaster, mishap and mayhem. The first of these relatives -- the creepy, evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) -- is the villain of the piece, a scheming, egomaniacal sadist who practically enslaves the children to a plague of chores in his decaying mansion, all the while plotting to seize their inheritance. No sooner does word of their predicament reach the children's attorney, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), than they are whisked off to charming, snake-loving adventurer Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), and then later to hopelessly neurotic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), with sneaky Olaf ever in hot pursuit. As in the books, this is all narrated in the ominous past-tense by Mr. Snicket himself (the voice and silhouette of Jude Law in his sixth screen appearance in just two months), which provides the movie with the quality most consider essential to the success of the books -- their playful sense of foreboding.
Carrey's rubbery visage and pulverizing personality make him perfect casting for Olaf -- just wicked enough to satisfy the obligatory need for villainy, but not so dark as to alienate or disturb particularly young children. Connolly, Streep and Spall are likewise memorable, striking a delicate balance between contemporary absurdity and Victorian Gothic. As conceived by writer Robert Gordon ("Men in Black 2") and director Brad Silberling ("Casper"), it comes off as a very suitable kind of Tim Burton-lite, ably offset by the talented and capable Browning and Aiken (with the help of the adorable Hoffman twins) who give the film just the right level of empathetic naturalism. The one "unfortunate event" that doesn't really belong is the film's failure to distill three books' worth of stories into a single, cogent narrative. Having effectively whittled the essence of three stories into single episodic adventure, the film is fun but ultimately unable to provide a genuinely satisfying conclusion to its antics. It helps that it's all dolled up in first-rate production design and effects, but the abrupt and surprisingly facile climax is bound to leave some feeling shortchanged. Starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Billy Connolly, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge and Meryl Streep. Directed by Brad Silberling. Written by Robert Gordon. Produced by Laurie Macdonald, Walter F. Parkes and Jim Van Wyck. A Paramount release. Family/Fantasy. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary situations & brief language. Running time: 108 min