(PG) 3 starsEd Johnson-Ott

I've not read any of the popular Daniel Handler children's books from the series on which the film is based, but they surely must have better plots than this: Three orphaned siblings (Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and sisters Kara and Shelby Hoffman as the infant) are left with a relative that is clearly unfit to care for them. The authorities ignore the pleas of the kids and they must rescue themselves from near disaster. Repeat three times and that's the movie. Having grown up on the Hardy Boys, I know there are successful children's book series based on formulas; surely the Lemony Snicket books have more going on than what is shown here. There are references to a secret society - always fun - but nothing in particular is done with the idea.

That said, the gothic art direction is fantastic; great Edward Gorey-style sets, gorgeous in their gloom, are made even more dramatic by deep, deep shadows. There are some terrific set pieces, especially the daring escape from a crumbling cliffside house. I loved the opening of the film, where the narrator not only warns the audience about how grim the goings-on will get, but goes so far as to suggest alternate entertainment choices. Jude Law narrates, by the way, quite nicely.

The children are delightful in their so-solemn performances (everything about the baby girl is a treat, from the subtitles for her infant-speak to the shots of her hanging from the side of a table, perfectly straight and still, by her teeth) and the adult cast is entertaining. As the horrible, murderous Count Olaf, Jim Carrey's traditional geeky overacting is actually appropriate here. As hyper-fretful Aunt Josephine, Meryl Streep is certainly ... er, effective, and Billy Connolly delights as the snake-loving Uncle Monty.

All the building blocks for a great movie are here. Hopefully, the inevitable Lemony Snicket sequel will provide a storyline worthy of its cast and crew. In the meantime, this one is certainly worth a go if you think you can get past the repetitiveness.

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