If there’s one thing I love more than the Unfortunate Events book series, a 13-part epic of melancholy penned by Daniel Handler under the Lemony Snicket pseudonym, it’s the 2004 film adaptation of the first three novels, starring Jim Carrey in his best role of his career as Count Olaf. Brad Silberling’s film is, while sketchy in adapting 3 books in such a short space of time, a magnificent, haunting children’s adventure with an extraordinary cast, stunning Thomas Newman score and unforgettable production design. Netflix’s new version, which has Handler involved far more directly, was never going to better that film for me. And it doesn’t. But that’s ok. This 8-episode first season, stewarded by Barry Sonnenfeld and Cat in the Hat director/famed production designer Bo Welch, is enormous fun, and as loyal an adaptation of Handler’s novels as we could have hoped for.
The crown jewel of this production, like the ’04 film, is its production design. Olaf’s house is a marvel, and the introductory shot that swoops up to present the Count in his Tower is absolutely thrilling. The colourful exteriors are, with a limited budget, very well executed.
Louis Hynes and Malina Weissman are, first and foremost, terrifically cast as the two elder Baudelaire orphans. They’re sweet but never sickeningly so, quiet and intelligent in presence. They are Netflix’s best bit of child casting in years (yeah, Stranger Things kids, accept the shade!). As the reassuring visual representation of the Snicket narrator character, Patrick Warburton is a compelling figure, wandering into frame to define long words and warn the audience of the guaranteed “unhappy ending”. It’s hard to describe what an improvement is on the Snicket portrayed by Jude Law in the ’04 film. One character whose casting has sadly been turned down a notch is Count Olaf. Neil Patrick Harris is no Jim Carrey. Not at all. He’s a (albeit very talented) professional clown, and he brings a clownish sensibility to Olaf, the World’s Worst Actor and a super creepy asshole who tries to marry a 14-year old girl. Some of Harris’ acting, and Olaf’s dialogue, threatens to destroy the show’s goodwill entirely (one shockingly ill-conceived internet joke totally ruins the story’s inherent era-less nature). Once Olaf begins donning a variety of disguises in future episodes, hopefully Harris will be given more room to muck about. But in Bad Beginning, when Olaf is at his most tall and terrifying, he has disappointed slightly. That said, there’s a hilarious “He’s The Count!” musical number that we doubt Carrey could ever have pulled off.
While the film was too condensed to address in much detail the VFD/secret society mystery aspects of Handler’s series, this show has begun to dig around from the offset. The final moments of Bad Beginning Part 1, as Warburton’s Snicket begins to drop some major hints as to the story’s future direction, and two beloved TV actors make a surprise appearance as two key figures, is the most breathless sequence a Snicket fan could ever have hoped for. I was clapping with joy. These first two episodes completely subdued my concerns about this show. I really believe we’re in for a treat.