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You can’t help but be aware of Jim Carrey, he of the rubber face and manic, over-the-top performances. Some call him ‘zany’, others ‘annoying’, and there are those that just plain don’t like him. Then you have Lemony Snicket, an author whose work he would rather you didn’t read—especially if you are a child. With books that are dark and not terribly pleasant at times, he feels that the stories need to be documented as a warning to others out there that things are not always ‘good’ and happy endings are not always guaranteed. A strange combination of personalities indeed.

But, as Violet Baudelaire would put it, “There’s always something...”

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Edition
It all starts innocently enough. Violet Baudelaire (Emily Browning)—the eldest child and possibly the finest fourteen year old inventor in the world—is at the beach with her bookworm brother, Klaus (Liam Aiken), and chew-happy sister, Sunny (played by both Kara and Shelby Hoffman). It isn’t a particularly beautiful day, what with the mist giving the surroundings an eerie feel, but even that doesn’t hint at the news that the shadowy figure coming towards them is about to reveal.

Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) is a banker, among other things, and the duty that has fallen to him is to tell the children of the rather unfortunate fire that has claimed their home and, in another unfortunate turn, their parents as well. Completely misreading the situation, Mr. Poe takes the children to stay with their closest relative—but in terms of distance rather than lineage—and their dear Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) is not the welcoming figure you would want when life takes such a nasty turn.

With his heart—or the lump of stone that he calls a heart—set on the Baudelaires’ inheritance, Count Olaf sets about making their lives miserable while trying to come up with the means to get his grubby little hands on the money before Violet turns eighteen. A regrettable incident while on an innocent trip where the road happens to across some train tracks leaves Mr. Poe no alternative but to find the Baudelaires a more suitable abode, but Count Olaf is not put off so easily.

Robert Gordon’s screenplay draws on elements of the first three Lemony Snicket books—The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window—and rolls relentlessly through one bad situation to another for the Baudelaires. Merging the three stories makes for a well paced yarn that gives a decent amount of breathing space for each looming disaster and allows the particular skills of each of the children to be used well. From Uncle Monty’s Reptile Room to Aunt Josephine’s doomed lake-side house, and onto the finale, it does play like a three act story, but there is just enough time to enjoy each new character as they are introduced.

Emily Browning does a stand-up job as Violet, but she is on an equal footing with Liam Aiken (Klaus) and they each bring a level-headedness to their roles. Handy when you are dealing with deadly situations. As for Sunny, it can be fairly difficult to tell when Kara (or Shelby) Hoffman is on screen, or whether it is an animatronic or CGI model you are looking at. There are some obvious moments, but I’m not about to criticise the crew—or a couple of two year olds—for what results in a fairly convincing sight.

Quite rightly sticking to the fundamental idea that the children are at centre stage, the script manages to keep Count Olaf on a leash that holds Jim Carrey back from being too over-exuberant while still letting him have a lot of fun with the various guises he uses to try to catch the children unawares. Any overacting fits in well with the characters, as Count Olaf and his acting troupe (yes, he’s an actor—how useful is that!) scheme their way to a fortune. Captain Sham and Stephano are both creepy enough alter-egos, even if the children see right through them, and there is enough difference in the portrayals to help things along.

That said, a quick look through the extras shows that the film could so easily have swung the other way, with Carrey becoming too central and hogging the camera for minutes at a time. I’ve seen plenty of comments crying for more Carrey and less children, but thankfully (for me at least) the right balance was found and this is a better film for it.

No Billy, that's a snake - not Bagpipes!
The relatives have done quite well for themselves also, being portrayed by such prominent stars as Meryl Streep (Aunt Josephine) and—to British audiences at least—Billy Connolly (Uncle Monty) and Timothy Spall (Mr. Poe—for once eschewing the Birmingham accent that he no doubt despises by now, seeing he’s from London). Monty is typically upbeat and the Estate Agent-phobic Josephine takes paranoia to a whole new level, with Poe used sparsely to link the stories together. They all seem to enjoy their time on screen, everyone interacts well, and who would ask for more?

The film would not have the desired effect even with the performances if it wasn’t for the work that went into the dreary world on show. I spent most of the film thinking how Burton-esque the whole thing was in terms of look and feel, and it came as no surprise that two of Tim Burton’s co-conspirators on Sleepy Hollow—production designer Rick Heinrichs (Fargo, Planet of the Apes (2001)) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—were responsible. Put together with the set decoration, costume design and the marvellously fitting score by Thomas Newman it makes an enjoyable ensemble.

That’s me speaking as an adult though. For a kids’ film, I’m sure that today’s ankle-biters will enjoy this. Gloomy and as full of drama as it is, there are still some funny moments and, importantly, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. The ending itself rounds the film off nicely but also leaves the door ajar for more Baudelaire-Olaf confrontations should the Count ever deign to poke his huge honker over a nearby parapet again. Given the wealth of material to draw on (eleven books, with apparently another two to go), who is to say it won’t happen?

Okay, so it’s a pretty recent film and studios are getting quite good at this video encoding lark (mostly), but where does that leave this effort? Presented anamorphically at the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, foreground and background detail is very good, although skin texture can appear a little soft and shadow detail suffers at times. Smoke and mist do prove a little challenging to the transfer and can look a little dithered, but you would have to look very closely to spot the very minor and brief problems.

However, the work that went into the wardrobe and production design is given the chance to shine, albeit with a somewhat cool palette that adds to the grim feel. Colours are well balanced throughout, and those that aren’t grey blend in well and do not overpower the surroundings.

If I was to have one complaint, it would be the edge enhancement that becomes apparent in the darker scenes (of which there are quite a few). Unsightly haloing is always lurking around the corner, popping up when you least want it—which for me is any time at all. It is not the worst offender in the world of shiny discs by a long shot, but it can be distracting.

The subtitles are easily readable and are also used for Sunny’s captions, with the layer change decently done on a holding shot on Count Olaf at 1h11m in chapter eleven (I wonder if all those ones have any spooky relevance?!?)

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Edition
I liked the soundtrack on this film a lot. Vocals are crisp and never overwhelmed by ambient noises, the surrounds are used to good effect, and there is a decent dynamic range to the proceedings.

The various set pieces such as the storm and the ‘event’ with the train are handled well, with both demonstrating some thunderous bass even in the main channels. The subtleties in the music and the general soundstage are showcased nicely, with a good amount of bass backing up the string and horn sections of the orchestra and the clarity of the treble shining through as well. The meeting with Captain Sham down at the harbour is just one example of the use of all the speakers to create the feel of being there, and the sound design in general really pays off.

I couldn’t find anything to nitpick at with this at all, and I can’t imagine even the inclusion of a DTS track improving much over what is a good all round Dolby Digital 5.1 effort. The Hungarian track loses a little of the high end due to a lesser bitrate (384kb/s compared to 448kb/s on the English track), and the dub always affects things anyway, but it still performs fairly well.

Spreading an unhealthy amount of extras over the two discs—all of which are presented in an anamorphic 1.77:1 ratio with optional English subtitles (Hungarian as well on Disc 1) and English soundtracks—the first disc is identical to the one in the single-disc edition.

Bad Beginnings lets us at a couple of short featurettes. ‘Building a Bad Actor’ (12m47s, DD2.0 Stereo) charts the evolution of the characters played by Jim Carrey throughout the film. Focussing mainly on ‘Stephano’, we are given a little insight into how the make-up and costume tests played a major part in how the Baudelaires’ nemeses were brought to life.

‘Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable’ (3m05s, DD2.0 Stereo) is too short to give much away at all, but does assure us that the little darlings are not happy bunnies while also giving us the original teaser trailer.

In a follow up to the first featurette there is an ’Interactive Olaf’.  Shown in four-way split screen, 9m16s of footage (DD2.0 Stereo, without subtitles) from Jim Carrey’s costume tests for Count Olaf (two of them), Captain Sham and Stephano are shown alongside each other with the viewer given the choice of which soundtrack to listen to. The track can be changed on the fly, but it seems a strange choice not to have them as separate pieces. It is a chance to see some of the more over the top moments that are better placed here than in the film itself, though.

Director Brad Silberling takes to the microphone for two ‘Alarming Audio Commentaries’. The first is a solo effort, and takes a very dim view of the books—although everything on the discs tries to dissuade you in some way from going near them so I’m sure it’s not serious. It is not entirely scene specific, but he does take his cues from what is on screen to present what is a fairly informative tour through the making of the film and the creative decisions taken. One of the better solo tracks I’ve sat through.

The second track partners Mr. Silberling with a most disgusted Lemony Snicket—the real one mind you, which probably means author Daniel Handler and not that impostor Jude Law. His incredulity at how anyone could inflict his books upon the cinematic world is played upon by Brad, but the constant ”Well at least you didn’t show (insert bad situation here)...,” “Aaargh! You did!” does get tiresome very quickly.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Edition
A selection of ‘Orphaned Scenes’ rounds out the easily found features of disc one. Split into ‘Dismal Deletions’ and ‘Obnoxious Outtakes’, the first section offers us the following deleted scenes in DD2.0 Surround:

- Violet’s Rock Retriever (41s);
- The Count Kills Shakespeare (1m13s);
- Alone in the World (1m17s);
- Casting the Marvellous Carriage (extended – 1m35s);
- Extended Puttanesca (1m41s);
- Monty’s Montage (39s);
- Sham Goes A’ Courtin’ (15s);
- Aunt Jo’s Demise (2m10s);
- Life in the Theatre (47s);
- The Marvellous Marriage (2m24s);
- Olaf’s Escape (1m03s).

With the other section giving us these:

- Working With Sunny (1m31s);
- Olaf’s Workshop (4m59s);
- Odious Count Olaf (4m34s);
- The Critic & The Cop (1m12s).

Offering the chance to ‘Play All’ scenes in a particular section, or select a scene individually, some of these are just an opportunity for more Carrey buffoonery, and were happily left out so as to not overpower the film. The others are interesting but are possibly better off where they are. However, you do get to see a little more of Dustin Hoffman’s un-credited appearance.

Hidden away on the disc is also a single, solitary Easter egg. ‘Count Olaf’s Ghastly Ghost Story’ (4m53s, DD2.0 Stereo) is a scary (well, maybe not) tale taken from the costume tests. It isn’t terribly difficult to find, but click on the Easter egg link in the Info panel on the right-hand side of this page if you need directions.

So on to disc two then, where we get some meatier morsels to chew on. ‘A Terrible Tragedy: Alarming Evidence from the Making of the Film’ gives us access to five documentaries covering everything from the inception to the scoring.

‘A Woeful World’ (54m32s, DD2.0 Stereo) is the largest of the offerings and takes us on a tour through the production with input from various members of the cast and crew. Production Design, Set Decoration, Costumes and Animal Handling are all touched upon and even though the producers get in on the act this does not come across as the usual promotional piece.

Delving a little more into the look of the film, ‘Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises’ (16m42s, DD2.0 Stereo) sees costume designer Colleen Atwood discussing the approach taken and how the costume tests played a major part in the characterisations. Timothy Spall, Meryl Streep and Jim Carrey (complete with Governator impression) get to put forward their two cents as well.

iViolet’s Functional Designs’ (10m43s, DD2.0 Stereo) shows us the various working inventions that played a part in the film—some of which were fully realised even though their appearance was extremely brief, or they didn’t make the cut at all. The Bed Maker, Plant Waterer and Stone Returner are among those featured.

‘CAUTION! Incredibly Deadly Vipers’ (8m50s, DD2.0 Stereo)—Jules Sylvester (animal coordinator) and Mark Jackson (animal handler) guide us gently through the dangerous world of the various snakes and other strange beasts on view in Uncle Monty’s Reptile Room.

‘The SAD Score’ (13m37s, DD2.0 Stereo) gives us composer Thomas Newman and director Brad Silberling waxing lyrical (!) about the writing of the score and the overall effect they were trying to achieve. A fairly insightful look at the development of the music in the film, but it’s over a bit too quickly.

The second section on the disc is ‘Volume, Frequency, Decibels’. ‘The Unsound Sound Designer’ (28m50s, DD2.0 Surround) delves into the mind of sound designer Richard King and his team as they set about the task of getting all manner of sound-bites. The ‘ambient scoring’ is quite gleefully brought about with recordings of the destruction of a house by falling tree (among other methods), and we are also shown the effects the initial screenings of the film had on the end result. That, however, is where this section ends. Although additional material is mentioned in the documentary, ‘You Probably Shouldn’t Listen To These’—which includes such things as the ability to listen to the recordings made by each of the microphones as the tree hits the house in ‘Tree, Meet House’—appears to have been dropped on the way over the Atlantic and is nowhere to be found on the discs. Dare I say it, unfortunate?

Still, on with the show. ‘Sinister Special Effects’ contains another four snippets, this time showing us the work that went into a variety of the effects (all in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English). ‘An Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny’ (6m21s) and ‘An Even More Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny’ (20m22s) showcase the animatronic and CGI work that was required in order to make Sunny look believable without putting the two year olds that portrayed her in any needless danger. ‘The Terrible Fire’ (5m52s) again concentrates on the CGI, this time for the morphing of the Baudelaires’ fine mansion into a smouldering pile of ash while the children are standing there. Finally, ‘Trains, Leeches & Hurricanes’ (9m21s) looks at the tricks used in the creation of three of the big set pieces in the film.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Special Edition
The final section, ‘Gruesome Galleries’, contains one hundred and fifty six stills in ‘Shadowy Stills’ (eighty-six production shots), ‘A Woeful World’ (forty-five stills of scenery and designs) and ‘Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises’ (twenty-five costume sketches). Each is navigated by choosing a direction and pressing enter on the remote, which does mean an awful lot of clicking.

As with disc one, there are some hidden Easter eggs—three of them to be precise—and instructions on how to find them can once again be found via the handy link on the right of this page. Very Finicky Director’ (1m28s) features Brad Silberling on the teaser trailer that wasn’t to be, ‘Eyes Are Everywhere’ (1m52s) focuses on the various eye motifs on display throughout the film, and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Man’ (2m09s) gives away the ‘face replacement’ secrets used for the photographs and paintings of Count Olaf.

And that, as they say, is that. A very commendable effort, with everything in anamorphic widescreen and—apart from a couple of exceptions—subtitled to boot. Some of the on-set footage can suffer from sounding a little drowned out by background noises at times, but each piece has the same style helping them fit seamlessly together. With split screen comparisons of before and after scenarios, storyboards, drawings and models all illustrating the making of the film, this never feels like the usual jumbled assortment of featurettes that get cobbled together on other ‘Special Editions’. Even the single disc edition gets a fair amount of respect with the commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes and smattering of documentary footage—I just wonder what happened to that missing sound section on disc two...?

An enjoyable film in a well put together set. The presentation of the movie itself, while not flawless, is definitely well done but the sound deserves a decent system to get the most out of it (stereo televisions are going to spoil the full effect).

The menus are easy to navigate, nicely themed in the style of the end credits to the film and available in both English and Hungarian should that be needed. The contents are for the most part worth your time, even if the extras themselves aren’t particularly aimed at children. My expectation that ‘Interactive Olaf’ was going to be some game or other didn’t come to realisation, but it is a set that all members of the family should get something out of. For those that do not feel the need for a few hours of documentary footage the single-disc release should suffice with its own decent crop, but this Special Edition builds on that well should you feel the urge—even with the unfortunate dropping of the sound features from the US release.