Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (PG)

Honey, I traumatised the kids!

During the Nineties, the trend began for Hollywood children's films to be "dark" - tormented, gloomy and shot through with familial dysfunction and Freudian distress. Everything from Black Beauty to The Secret Garden got the treatment, and it was a wonder we never ended up seeing My Little Pony on Prozac or the Care Bears become Were-Bears. The film-maker responsible for starting the tendency was Tim Burton, whose Edward Scissorhands remains the definitive example of Nursery Gothic.

These days the sombre style in children's films has become so routine that we take it for granted, but you can't fail to be struck by it afresh in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which could be Hollywood's most efficient mechanism for traumatising infants since Bambi's mother went the way of all venison.

Based on three of the hugely successful books by the apocryphal Lemony Snicket, LSASOUE is a relishably sullen antidote to the Jennings-with-spells cheeriness of Harry Potter. The ill-fated Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and small, inscrutably gurgling Sunny - lose their parents in a fire, and are handed into the grasping claws of a loathsome relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). The Count is a vain, skeletal skinflint, aesthete and would-be actor, part pipe-cleaner figure, part scuttling mantis, with something of all the bogeymen ever invoked to scare little mites into eating their cabbage - a sepulchral blend of Freddy Krueger, Nosferatu, the Child Catcher and John Malkovich.

Also a disguise artist (at one point, he's seen reading about Lon Chaney, "Man of a Thousand Faces"), Olaf appears in two other incarnations, as a grey-voiced boffin and as a grizzled sea dog, like Popeye with incipient lycanthropy. Like the film itself, Carrey tries a little too hard but is undeniable value for money: there's no faulting his ability to strike bizarre geometric poses while emoting from under thick layers of latex

Without a doubt, LSASOUE is the best Tim Burton film this year. Not that Burton had any hand in it, but several of his associates did: designer Rick Heinrichs, costumer Colleen Atwood, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki.

The executive producer is Barry Sonnenfeld, whose own The Addams Family was the first film to show that the skinny maestro's touch could be pastiched wholesale, as director Brad Silberling does whole-heartedly here. Who knows whether Burton is chuffed by such homage, or is in talks with copyright lawyers; but all LSASOUE's distorted perspectives, Rube Goldberg machineries, actors twisted and bloated into 3-D cartoons, and the sheer preponderance of bible black and pus yellow make the film far more enjoyably Burtonian than his own recent mawkish "growing-up" film Big Fish. The flamboyant nightmare settings range from Olaf's mouldering pile, with its staring-eye motifs and crotchety Caligari-esque lines, to the teetering lakeside house of the children's justifiably nervy Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep, a-quiver in a mildewed hat), spectacularly demolished in a fearsome tempest of real and computer-generated debris.

The Lemony Snicket series is itself a pastiche, mixing the Brothers Grimm and the Victorian penny dreadful with the glacially sinister wit of illustrator Edward Gorey, himself an arch-pasticheur. Adapted by writer Robert Gordon from three of Snicket's slim books, the film doesn't shy from all-out creepiness or indeed morbidity: it features parental death, faked suicide and the nauseating prospect of an attack by flesh-eating leeches, not to mention Olaf's troupe of thespian cohorts, a crew even more louche than Dennis Hopper's entourage in Blue Velvet. There's also a truly unsettling climax as young Violet (15-year-old Emily Browning) seems fated to undergo an engineered marriage to the Count: he's only after her money, but queasy intimations of Victorian child prostitution are not too far from the surface.

Although the film ends on a cursory ray of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel is surely only the ominous glow of an approaching sequel.

Mr Snicket's blackly cynical vision remains intact as an anti-Potter world view: his is a universe in which adults are either evil or tragically unreliable, in which grimness is so pervasive that even the world of the young Baudelaires' pre-ordeal idyll is an expanse of picturesque desolation. There are no benign Dumbledores or Hagrids to save the day - God is dead, in fact, and if America's Christian right had been less obtuse, then this, not Potter, is the series it might have tried to ban.

Like J K Rowling, however - more so, in fact - Snicket is big on promoting the values of education: Violet is a brilliant inventor and Klaus (Liam Aiken) a voracious reader whose interests extend from Being and Nothingness (which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote) to Crawly Things From the Deep (which Sartre resembled). The film's humour, agreeably, is as wordy as it is visual, its best lines being the subtitled translations of the squeals emitted by baby Sunny. The part of Sunny is shared by 2-year-old twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman, their charming performances no doubt aided by the presence in the crew of a "Baby Wrangler", which suggests, appropriately enough, twisting the little dears' arms till they understand their motivation.

The casting of Jude Law as Lemony Snicket - perched in silhouette at his typewriter in an old clock tower, working the narrative gears, as it were - rather dampens the mood, his voice suggesting a writer of polite romances rather than blood-chilling abominations. But perhaps his presence serves to reassure the wee ones that they are in the hands of a sane and responsible storyteller, not a crazed demonic nihilist. A lovely bonus touch, by the way, is the eerily stylish final credits crawl animated by Benjamin Goldman, inspired by the shadow figures of the great German animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger. LSASOUE is a little impersonal and efficient to be truly inspired, but it's the best panto Hollywood has to offer this season, if your idea of panto is Shock-Headed Peter or Sweeney Todd, that is.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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