Lemony Snicket has sold out -- and his movie is better for it.
This may not be what fans of ''A Series of Unfortunate Events" want to hear, but it's true: The inevitable Hollywood version of author Daniel Handler's poisoned kiddie-book bonbons inevitably lets a little light into the darkest corners of the Baudelaire orphans' lives. There's the occasional sentimental moment, a smile or two, a conventional mystery plot; there's even -- gasp -- a happy ending. And of course there's Jim Carrey galumphing all over the place, braying his merry idiot laugh. What on the page reads as an intermittently inspired pastiche of Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Roald Dahl has been retooled into the latest megaplex bombasto-tainment.
Here's the catch: The movie's good.
Director Brad Silberling (''Moonlight Mile") has essentially made a Tim Burton movie without the weird shafts of adolescent pain: The woeful tale of the Baudelaires, their orphaning and subsequent journey from one hapless guardian to the next -- chased all the while by the venal stick-figure Count Olaf (Carrey) -- is sad but not tragic here, a story of resourcefulness and fortitude in the face of amusingly grim events, narrated by the silhouetted figure of Snicket (Jude Law) with the tact of a first-year undertaker.
At the same time, Silberling's not a hack like Chris Columbus, and ''Snicket" has more zip and inspired filmcraft than the first two Harry Potter films. The film's no masterpiece, but at least you're in the hands of people who know what they're doing.
So the dire occurrence that opens the books -- the death of the children's parents in a terrible fire -- is dealt with obliquely, the parents never seen, the whole thing a fairy-tale intimation of darkness. We're left with the serious, inventive Violet (Emily Browning, a perfect name for a young actress who seems poised between the Brontes and goth), Klaus (Liam Aiken) of the furrowed brow and many books, and infant Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who, as readers of the series know, bites. Everything. She also speaks in subtitled baby gabble that is generally cruder here than in the books but is still undeniably funny. If there's a problem with this movie, it's that there's not enough Sunny -- this criticism comes not only from me but from my 7-year-old junior reviewer, so it carries weight.
The children are taken under the wing of their parents' lawyer, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall, all muttonchop and Colonel Blimp mumble), who shunts them to their nearest geographical relative, Count Olaf. Now comes Carrey; some in the audience sit up expectantly, while others duck and cover, recalling the comedian's elephant-gun approach to the Grinch. But the genius of ''Snicket" is to cast Carrey as an actor -- a vain, eye-rolling, snorting aesthete of the old Edmund Kean school. He lives in a desiccated mansion, has a gang of awful actor friends (Jennifer Coolidge, Luis Guzman, and Jane Adams among them), and is aching to get at the children's inheritance. Thus the kids find themselves stranded in a locked car on the train tracks, the 12:15 bearing down fast.
Having fun yet? Well, yes, because how the Baudelaires get out of that fix is clever and engaging, and because Silberling, cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, and production designer Rick Heinrichs have created a world you can't take your eyes off. ''Snicket" unfolds in a tinted alternate universe of gray, Gorey-esque skies, where cars have reel-to-reel dashboard tape decks and mansions perch perilously on the edge of cliffs. (Look closely at the envelope the children receive in a scene toward the end, by the way. The Baudelaires are nearer than you think.)
That teetery mansion is where the kids eventually find themselves, the wards of Aunt Josephine, played by Meryl Streep as a neurasthenic Gibson Girl. Josephine's the sort who's afraid the doorknobs might somehow explode -- with good reason, it turns out -- and she's susceptible to the wooing of a manly sailor, no matter that he's Count Olaf in Popeye disguise. Already we've seen Carrey play a prissy nerd in an effort to get the children away from another foster parent, the jolly herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), and the repetitiveness of his appearances may start to wear on you and your kids (junior reviewer found him funny but enough already). But, by and large, Carrey earns his laughs without getting overly splattery.
Speaking of kids, is this really for them? Not for the youngest, obviously, but for my money it's less traumatic than ''Polar Express" or a crass grab bag like ''Shark Tale." If the changes made by the filmmakers will tick off purists, they honor a medium that craves resolution and (reasonably) happy endings, unlike books, which can string a good black joke on forever.
True, the subplot in which Olaf tries to marry the teenage Violet gets into issues the movie has no idea what to do with (this was true of the book, too, and in fairness it seems to go right over kids' heads), and there's one misstep into the seriously scary -- a nighttime attack of carnivorous leeches that had junior reviewer hiding her face in my shoulder. The rest of ''Snicket" is a dank clockwork pleasure, from its fake-out beginning (as a cheery Claymation film called ''The Happy Elf") to the gorgeous paper cut-out credits that will keep you in the theater to the end. (A word of praise, too, to Thomas Newman's spooky/lovely score.)
More to the point, the movie, like the books, flatters children's innate sense that the world is not a perfect place and that anyone who insists otherwise is trying to sell you something. How you deal with the cognitive dissonance of a $125 million Hollywood picture telling you this is up to you. At least there are no Lemony Snicket Happy Meals. Yet.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.