Review: Netflix's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' is a fairy tale of whimsy and woe
The newest adaptation of Lemony Snicket's beloved children's tragedies is far from unfortunate, unpleasant or uninteresting.
A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the 13 books from the aforementioned Snicket (pen name for author Daniel Handler, who is also an executive producer) hits Netflix early Friday morning.
It's weirdly wonderful, adorned with unique style and a surprising amount of comedy. The aesthetics are a blend of goth and Dr. Seuss style, as if Tim Burton and Seuss himself, Theodor Geisel, created a children's show together. Though the series actually has Barry Sonnenfeld as another executive producer, who seems to include many of the charmingly baroque elements from his Addams Family films in this project.
Like the books, the series is narrated by Snicket (Patrick Warburton), who bills himself as an official biographer of the Baudelaire's misfortunes. He implores viewers from the get-go to find something more pleasant to watch. Only dreariness follows the Baudelaires after that fateful day on Briny Beach.
Do not heed these warnings, unless you want to miss a delightfully melancholy kids story with adult sophistication.
It all starts when Baudelaire teens Violet (Malina Weissman) and Klaus (Louis Hynes) and infant sister Sunny (Presley Smith, sometimes digitally augmented) learn of the untimely deaths of their parents in a house fire. What follows is a, ahem, series of unfortunate events that see the three passed onto an inept banker (K. Todd Freeman) who gives them over to cruel guardians and deplorable situations.
The younger actors shine brighter as a trio, each exuding innocence with a surprising amount of maturity and intellect. Then there's Sunny, a literal baby who somehow manages to steal almost every scene she's in. The way she longingly stares at a freshly-baked baguette is all of us.
The three are propped up by a star-studded adult cast. Fans have been eager to see Neil Patrick Harris is Count Olaf, the vile first guardian to the orphans who seeks to obtain the Baudelaire fortune by any dastardly deed necessary.
Book-lovers will be comforted by Harris's portrayal of Count Olaf. He's not as bumbling as Jim Carrey in the 2004 film, but manages to flip between ridiculous and terrifying in the blink of an eye or creepy wiggle of his unibrow.
The first four episodes cover books The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room, with plenty of screen time for Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack) and Dr. Montgomery Montgomery — yes, that's his real name — played by Aasif Mandvi.
Cusack is a treat in a kooky wig with a drool-worthy private library for the Baudelaires to escape to when Count Olaf is his most vile. Mandvi is the cool scientist uncle you've always wanted with a room full of scary-looking but mostly cuddly reptiles.
As the three siblings bounce from one ill-fated guardian to the next, they stay barely a step ahead of Count Olaf, who dons increasingly more absurd disguises as the series weaves through the books.
The Baudelaires spend 13 books trying to find some semblance of peace while surrounding by bumbling and inattentive adults who don't take their fears seriously and running from a madmen hell bent on obtaining their fortune even it means killing them.
The first season spans the first four books, making each a two-episode long adventure with plenty of time for narrator Snicket's depressing anecdotes and hints of conspiracy. Newcomers and book-lovers will adore the subtle plot twists involving the V.F.D. and the Baudelaire parents, who may or may not appear and may or may not be played by familiar faces. We promised Netflix not to tell.
The series clearly gets right what the earlier movie got wrong. It stays true to its literary roots while building a richly dark world unlike any other family series we've seen. It refuses to treat children like children or dumb down its content to please a certain audience.
Both the books and the show implore you to find something more cheery to indulge in, reverse psychology to get you to explore a story with a more complex center.
The Baudelaire's tale of woe is a feast for the eyes and will have you feeling optimistic no matter how dreary the story gets.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @chelseatatham.
If you watch
A Series of Unfortunate Events premieres at 3 a.m. Friday on Netflix.