A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
23rd May 2005
It was just an ordinary day at Briny Beach where Klaus, Sunny and Violet, the three children of the wealthy Baudelaire family, were happily playing in the sunshine. Klaus Baudelaire is the researcher of the group with a photographic memory and he likes nothing more than than studying a book from the extensive Baudelaire library. His current favourite is The Complete History Of Absolutely Everything, Volume 127 - Cauldron to Caution. Next up is Violet Baudelaire, the inventor of the group, and her favourite hobby is working on mechanical devices. She wears a ribbon in her hair to keep it out of her eyes, but removing the ribbon always signifies that she has found a solution to a particularly challenging problem. Finally, there's Sunny, the youngest of the children, and her most notable feature are her four sharp teeth and an unusual manner of speaking. Her favourite hobby is biting and gnawing on things.
But this happy group of children are about to become miserable orphans when Mr. Po, a close family friend and the family banker, approaches the group and informs them that their loving parents have died in a mysterious fire at their lavish mansion. With no parents and a mansion which has been raised to the ground, the children are sent to distant relative Count Olaf who has been granted guardianship of the children. But Count Olaf is no loving guardian and, although the children sense this, Mr. Po is still more than happy to leave the children with him. But with an eye on the children's inheritance Olaf treats the children like slaves, forcing them to cook dinner for his whole theatre troupe and doing hundreds of chores. However, once Olaf realises that the children are better off dead he hatches a dastardly plot to kill them.
But after his attempt to kill the children fails Count Olaf loses custody of the children and Mr. Po takes them to stay with snake specialist Uncle Monty. Although suspicious at first, the children soon realise that Uncle Monty is a kind and considerate man and not all the snakes in his collection are as dangerous as they claim to be. However, Count Olaf has no intention of letting the children run away with his inheritance, and being an actor and master of disguise, he arrives at the Monty home as Stephano. Although the children immediately recognise him, Uncle Monty fails to read the danger signs and it's not long before the children are on the move again to their Aunt Josephine. But where there is money to be had there is always a Count Olaf, and a dastardly plot.
Given the dark and gothic style of the film the colours are unsurprisingly dark and rather understated. Still, what colours there are are bright and rich with some excellent colour tones whilst the black levels are near perfect which go on to prove just how poor quality VHS really was and something that Laserdisc would never have dreamt of matching. But with that amount of blacks and the plentiful supply of dark and gloomy locations there is the distinct possibly of outlining and other quality issues. However, not only was the print immaculate, but I failed to spot a single problem with either outlining or artifacting.
But it was the overall image quality and the combination of dark and bright images which truly astounded me. Given that large swatches of the landscapes and sets were CGI creations it is rather easy to produce good images with the minimum amount of effort. Never the less, without some care and attention to detail the resulting DVD encoding can end up looking a right mess. Fortunately, that attention to detail has been supplied in lavish quantities and the results are truly demonstration material, even if the side is let down ever so slightly by a rather obvious looking CGI snake.
The 448 Kbps Dolby Digital soundtrack matches the wonderful on screen visuals with a dramatic musical score along with a highly involving and atmospheric soundtrack which places you firmly in the middle of things. With plenty of ambient and spatial effects in the surround channels, which more than come into their own during the windy scenes at Aunt Josephine house, and some clear and precise dialogue in the centre and front channels, you really couldn't ask for much more from a film soundtrack.
The superbly animated and scored menu system is very gothic in its design and you could almost be in the mind of Tim Burton and his excellent, and equally surreal and gothic film, A Nightmare Before Christmas. Even the menu option titles are given suitably depressing titles to match the style of the original stories. The DVD comes in two flavours. A single disc edition or a double disc special edition which includes an additional three hours of bonus material. However, this review concentrates on the single disc edition.
First off there are two Audio Commentaries. The first commentary track is provided by director Brad Silberling whilst the second is, again, with Brad Silberling but this time he's also accompanied by the "real" Lemony Snicket. However, it is the first audio commentary which offers the most interesting information as Silberling hardy pause for breathe, or water, from start to finish. Garnished with stacks of information, Silberling talks about the many differences between the film and book and just how much influence Carrey had on the proceedings. The second track is less technical and, frankly, rather tiresome as the two embark in some friendly, but uninteresting, banter. Still, fans of the books may find something of value and may want to attempt a listen. But for everyone else it can be avoided without much loss.
In the thirteen minute Building a Bad Actor featurette director Brad Silberling discusses the various characters of Count Olaf and how Jim Carrey got into character. As usual, Carrey can't resist adlibbing and many of his improvisations during his character screen tests were actually written into the film script. With plenty of behind-the-scenes clips of Carrey in rehearsals and make-up sessions it's an interesting look at the amount of work that goes on before a single frame is shot in anger. In the three minute Making The Baudelaire Children Miserable featurette Brad Silberling chats about the three child actors and includes a few early screen and make-up tests.
The nine minute Interactive Olaf feature goes on to prove just how versatile Jim Carrey is and probably just how hard it is to work with him once he's in character and attempting to change the script. With the screen split into four sections you can see Carrey in character as Olaf, Stephano and Captain Sham. If you then want to hear the audio then you'll need to select the relevant portion of the display. Although it quite a novel idea, and worth the hassle to see and hear Carrey in full flow, why we couldn't have this as four separate sections is a bit of a mystery. After all, if you want to watch and listen to each portion you'll need to watch this feature four times. It just all seems rather pointless and over the top.
The fourteen minutes of Obnoxious Outtakes are just that - rather obnoxious and uninteresting, although watching the little Sunny falling asleep at the table is as sweet as it is funny. Other than that it is mostly made up of Olaf and his acting troupe working around Carrey's various, and tedious, improvisation routines. However, the last scene with Cedric the Entertainer and Dustin Hoffman is probably the funniest of the lot with Hoffman providing the laughs. The fourteen minutes worth of Dismal Deletions are worthy of a look in and include some extended as well as deleted scenes. They can be watched individually or in one go with one or two interesting scenes, especially a scene where Olaf is shown escaping. There's also a worthy Easter Egg to hunt down containing some early costume and lighting effects.
Considering that the highly popular Lemony Snicket books are aimed at the younger end of the market I find it all a little odd that it's so dark and melancholy. It's almost as if author Daniel Handler (if that is indeed who the mystery author really is) took a depressed Harry Potter, crossed it with the warped, but clever, mind of Roald Dahl and then asked for some visual ideas from Tim Burton. I don't think I've ever been so depressed watching a film in my life. There's also a definite marketing opportunity on hand here for all things gothic as I'm sure half the young teenagers who watch this film will want to retreat into a darkened room, continually watch A Nightmare Before Christmas and only wear black.
Whereas the film could have been an overly long and depressing experience the compression of the first three books into a single film has been a triumph. Even so, there has been some liberties taken with the storyline and a scene from the first book has found itself moved to the third and ultimately at the end of the film. But with another eight books in the series, and a successful outing on the big screen, I'm sure that Jim Carrey and Count Olaf will be making another scheming appearance in the not too distant future. If only the rather tiresome Harry Potter could have taken a sword to its overly long films and produced something a little shorter and more interesting to watch such as this.
If there was ever a character created as a vehicle for the immense talents of Jim Carrey then Count Olaf has to be it. With Count Olaf taking up a number of disguises throughout the film Carrey must have been in his element coming up with his many personalities (as the Interactive Olaf Costume And Character Test goes on to prove). With comedy classics such as The Mask and more serious roles such as the excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the criminally underrated Cable Guy on his CV, Jim Carrey must surely have to be considered as one of the most versatile actors of the 21st century.
Whilst both fans of the Lemony Snicket series of books and the multi-talented Jim Carrey are going to be more than happy with the results on offer here, there is one little caveat that which prevents me from giving this disc a full blown recommendation. And that caveat is the recommended retail price. With the single disc retailing for £19.99 and the two disc edition for a whopping £24.99 you have to wonder where the marketing department is getting its pricing policy from. Fortunately, if you shop around on-line you'll find some hefty discounts and that price tumbles dramatically and it becomes much more of an worthy purchase. Still, even if you feel that price is too high then a rental is certainly recommended.