THIS ADAPTATION of Daniel Handler's hip children's books, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (which opens Friday, Dec. 17, at Metro and other theaters), is quite vain about the fact that it's not your typical saccharine kiddie entertainment. It starts with a parody of an animated film about a Happy Elf, then interrupts the saccharinalia with a jolt to inform you that you're in for a stormier evening.
But the whole problem with this Snicket is that it is, in fact, saccharine at heart. It lacks the courage of its faux convictions. Compare the villain, Jim Carrey as wicked Uncle Olaf, with the true Enemies of the Happy Elf in children's literature, in dark classics like the Snicket books, Willy Wonka, the third (but not the first two) Harry Potter films, and Tim Burton's tales from haunted childhood. Carrey's Olaf is utterly unthreatening, even though he's trying to seize custody of three orphan children, 14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning), 12-year-old Klaus (Liam Aiken), and toddler Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), so he can murder them and grab their parents' vast inheritance.
Sounds like a scary Elf-antidote bad guy. Yet there's not one sinister note in Carrey's performance, just a lot of hambone antics and tired disguise changes, excessively familiar and surprisingly dull. When Olaf locks the kids in a car parked on a railroad track, the scene is niftily staged, and you've got to admire the pluck of the kids in engineering their escape. They're special, you see: Klaus has read every book in the immense library of their late parents' recently incinerated mansion; Violet can invent anything she needs once she's tied her hair back in a ribbon (her thinking-cap equivalent); and while Sunny can emit only coos and gurgles, her knack for chewing through anything comes in handy time and time again. She's smart and sassy, too: Grown-ups can't understand her—Olaf keeps dissing her as a "monkey"—but her sibs read her loud and clear, as do we, via subtitles.
There is supposed to be an obbligato of horror running under the orphans' hairsbreadth escapes from Olaf's clutches, as they scuttle from home to home: first Olaf's, then kindly explorer Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), then recovering explorer Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), a good-hearted lady who's irrationally terrified of unlikely events—being crushed to death by refrigerators or killed by realtors—but un-accountably calm about her ramshackle mansion's site, perched just off a cliff and supported by the ricketiest of stilts. Handler's original horror ultimately derives, I think, from Dickens' still-influential stories of imperiled Victorian children, and you feel it to deep effect in true anti-Elf adventures.
Whatever the virtue of Handler's books (only bits of which I've read), the movie reminds me of Scrooge's dismissive comment to one of his troubling ghosts: There's more of showbiz gravy than the grave about him. Apart from clownish Olaf, the kids are scared on occasion when physical destruction impends, but it's more like The Road Runner than Bleak House.
At least Olaf occupies a sensational-looking alternative universe (it's like a suburb of Tim Burton–land). Every set is splendidly imaginative: the kids' mansion, Monty's gentle-anaconda-infested manse, Josephine's teetering megashack. The action is admirable and clever thanks to deft director Brad Silberling (Moonlight Mile), particularly in the scenes where Josephine's paranoia proves to be inadequate to their actual peril.
The kids are smashing actors, winning our hearts with no soppy, Disneyfied Elf stratagems. Aiken could play a bookish Harry Potter; Browning is a pouty-mouthed beauty. The Hoffman twins are cute, but never cutesy. Timothy Spall is marvelous as the harrumphing, clueless executor of their parents' will. Connolly radiates warmth like a Christmas hearth, and Streep is flutterily funny (though you'd never know from this film that she's a great actress).
So what went wrong? Carrey's schmaltzy flop of a performance, the movie's closet sentimental Elfism, and the lack of a unifying quest or menace of the sort found in J.K. Rowling, Tim Burton, or Roald Dahl. The sardonic, ironic punch to the series of unfortunate events becomes simply descriptive: Ravenous circling killer eels and a homicidal pedophile groom merely seem like random, mild misfortunes for the kids. And we're only mildly amused by them.
Still, Snicket is ultimately no worse than the first two Harry Potter movies. Truth be told, more families will enjoy its toothlessness than would've welcomed the genuinely scarier spirit of the books. It's the holidays, and the multiplex crowds want to embrace their inner Elf.