This review is based on the first four episodes, which were provided prior to us.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was a YA book series like few others, one that relished in the morose, the bizarre and the tragically hilarious lives of the Baudelaire children, a trio of precocious, remarkably-astute orphans struck with endless tribulations after their house is burned to the ground, everything they owned is destroyed and their parents are horrifically consumed in flames — and that’s before they meet Count Olaf, their wicked, deprived, massively selfish legal guardian who’ll stop at nothing to steal his adopted kids’ enormous fortune.
It was a deliciously absurd, gleefully disdainful, compulsively wicked and thesaurus-friendly 13-part collection, the kind that tickled the fancy of the right kind of young literary consumer (notably, those who enjoy their comedy dark), though one that didn’t quite get the cinematic transition it deserved in 2004’s somewhat misguided film adaptation. While director Brad Silbering (1995’s Casper, 2009’s Land of the Lost) often got the look right, particularly when it came to the lavish, top-of-the-line set designs, costuming and art direction, he didn’t get the feel right. And that’s a shame.
Jim Carrey’s Olaf was a little too broad, and a little too bombastic, to capture the villainous character’s underlying menace, for instance, and the pacing couldn’t help but feel a tad rushed — which made sense, considering the producers condensed the first three novels into a tight, if crunched, 108-minute package. Paramount hoped the newfound series would earn two-or-three sequels, but it became apparent that Snicket’s audience was more niche than they expected. Plans were abandoned and the future of film series was put into doubt. It was, admittedly, a fittingly forlorn end. Now, nearly 13 years later, appropriately enough, Netflix begs to differ.
Developed by television scribe Mark Hudis (That ’70s Show, True Blood), from writer/executive producer Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Snicket himself, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the television series, hopes — in true Netflix fashion — to continue the on-screen story once lost a decade prior. Guided by Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family) during its first two installments, and then by Mark Palanksy (Penelope) in its next two, if 2004’s adaptation followed in the vein of Tim Burton, then this new iteration is decidedly more indebted to Wes Anderson in terms of its style and approach. Favoring drab humor, quirky camera angles and specifically wacky character eccentricities this time, if still sharing the past take’s exquisite attention to punctuated production values, Netflix’s latest may not be absolutely perfect by design, but it feels right this time.
Not simply more faithful to the source material but also more attuned to what made it work, A Series of Unfortunate Events is finally given the respectful, attentive transition to the screen that it deserves with the fine, binge-happy folks at Netflix. It’s nice to see a turn for the better, for once.
These first four episodes, which follow the first two books and range between 42-63 minutes a piece, find Malina Weissman (Sonnenfeld’s Nine Lives), Louis Hynes (Barbarians Rising) and the adorable little Presley Smith assuming the roles of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire this time around, respectively, with Neil Patrick Harris filling in for Carrey as Olaf and Patrick Warburton assuming the omnipresent on-screen embodiment of Snicket. Similar to the books, Violet is the inventor of the group, Klaus is the all-knowing bookworm and Sunny — with her sharp front two teeth — can gnaw through seemingly anything and everything, while speaking a gibberish language all her own, accommodated with subtitles. Those around her understand her pointed observations as often as the Family Guy characters listen to Stewie Griffin’s ramblings, however.
NPH’s Olaf, meanwhile, is as maniacally malicious as he is lanky and bony here, supporting an even-more distinct unibrow than Carrey’s, which the How I Met Your Mother veteran will wiggle at any given opportunity, while sharing his love for high-rising dark pants and tight-fitting suits. While the children are the heart of the show, Olaf is ultimately the one that allows it to sink or swim. Thankfully, Harris’ performance is less grandiloquent than Carrey’s and much more sneering, conniving and mysterious. It’s still, perhaps, a little too nutty to work in full, but it fits in nicely.
What’s more, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events really knows how to let the colors pop, especially when the original film often preferred to switch between black and grey. Sonnenfeld is a director that knows how to make visually exciting work, even if his stories occasionally fail to capture that same enthusiasm, and this new series is among his most invigorated and optically-intoxicating work in ages. It’s grandiose by design, but there’s also a quaintness to its approach, which is more appealing than grating. And Snicket/Handler’s pen is as bouncy and punchy here as it was in the novels. There’s a little more self-awareness in his voice thoughout this version too, which compliments and determents the series in equal measures.
Yes, not every joke lands here, and those that do fall flat fall exceedingly flat. But its zippiness allows viewers to forgive these occasional shortcomings, and the actors commit to the show’s bleakly dynamic sense of humor with assurance and assertiveness, which is more winning than not. Also, it also doesn’t hurt that we get a knowingly tongue-in-cheek theme song from NPH himself, entitled “Look Away,” that instantly lets you know that this show will finally get it right.
Filled with the intellectual childlike wonder — especially for those children who like their entertainment value rather grim and ghastly compared to, say, Harry Potter — and consistent cleverness, Netflix does Snicket right with their take on A Series of Unfortunate Events. Cheeky, confident and vigorous in its design, and aided by highly enjoyable supporting turns from Joan Cusack, K. Todd Freeman and Aasif Mandvi, it’s a rightly impressive, frequently fun screen adaptation, and an absolute blessing for the fans who love the endlessly tormented lives of these doomed characters. It’s also a richly-detailed wonder, both visually and narratively, that should only continue to succeed and astound in later episodes. Don’t heed the show’s endless warnings. Indulge yourself in the sublime misery that is these series of unfortunate events.
Lemony Snicket's delightfully miserable YA book series finally gets the visually sublime and wickedly inspired TV adaptation it deserves with A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix.