Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA/Germany, 2004. Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon Movies, Kumar Mobiliengesellschaft mbH & Co. Projekt Nr. 2 KG, Parkes+MacDonald Image Nation, Scott Rudin Productions. Screenplay by Robert Gordon, based on the books The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window by Daniel Handler. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Produced by Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, Jim Van Wyck. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Rick Heinrichs. Costume Design by Colleen Atwood. Film Editing by Michael Kahn. Academy Awards 2004.
The influence of Tim Burton’s work can be felt on every inch of this thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film, so much so that you’ll wonder if Burton had anything to do with the production (he didn’t, but the production designer, costume designer and cinematographer of Sleepy Hollow are employed here which might account for the similarities). After three children (Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara and Shelby Hoffman playing the toddler) lose their parents in a house fire, they are sent to live with an unapologetically evil uncle (Jim Carrey at his most sinister) who wants to enslave them into servitude and make off with their grand inheritance. When he learns that he won’t come into their money until the eldest child is eighteen, he tries to bump them off, but their executor (Timothy Spall) gets wind of Carrey’s diabolical plan and sends the children to live with other relatives who are not as evil but definitely just as strange. Billy Connolly is wonderful as the kids’ snake-loving uncle and Meryl Streep is a hoot as their panphobic aunt, but in both cases they offer the children genuine love and safety even though they’re not working from a full deck of cards themselves. Trouble is, Carrey keeps showing up in clever disguises (that never fool the children for a minute), making away with the new guardians in his determined effort to get the kids’ money. Thankfully, the eldest daughter is an inventor, the middle son an avid reader, and the youngest toddler a skilled biter (yes, a biter), so the children manage to take care of themselves even when all the adults around them ignore their every word of warning. Dark and oppressively gloomy, this delightful film pulls no punches in showing the horrid world that these children live in, and is all the more satisfying for it. Today’s media is generally too shy to really scare kids in the way that The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth terrorized my generation, and it’s nice to see a filmmaker unafraid to squeeze some fear out of the snotnose runts who populate our movie theatres (besides, the three heroes in this film are impressively self-reliant, which is something young people need to see more of in their cinematic role models). Carrey is frightfully mean (even losing weight off his already lanky frame to give the character a look of pure badness), and he’s aided well by excellent performances from the three children, and some kooky cameos by the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer and Dustin Hoffman. An ending that is obviously baiting a sequel is a bit of an annoyance, but otherwise this adventure (which is also beautifully scored by Thomas Newman) is a full course of dark delights.