When their parents are killed in a mysterious fire, the Baudelaire children - Violet (Browning), Klaus (Aiken) and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) - are sent to live with their nearest relative the villainous Count Olaf (Carrey).
With no Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings to bring fantastic seasonal cheer to multiplexes, the mantle of Big Christmas Film is this year passed to yet another adaptation of a kid-friendly book, namely the works of elusive author Lemony Snicket (actually San Franciscan scribe Daniel Handler).
This gloomy children's book series by Daniel Handler has been quietly gaining a worldwide following among both children and grown-ups, with 11 books (of a planned 13) having hit the shelves in the time it takes JK Rowling to sharpen her pencil. Brad Silberling's big-screen Snicket surpasses the early Potters, bolstered by a set of memorable performances and its atmospheric, Burtonesque visuals.
Silberling sets the tone early on, with a bizarrely brilliant opening sequence, and thanks to the ensuing blend of twisted comedy and tense set-pieces, offers much to enjoy thereafter. He's also smart and disciplined enough let the movie belong to its terrific child leads, rather than allowing it to become a runaway Jim Carrey vehicle. Not that Carrey's that restrained. As the vain, murderous and terrible-disguise-wearing Olaf, his performance will neither let down his fans or his detractors - it's guaranteed to delight and irritate in equal measures.
The film does suffer from a patchy, episodic script, though, which is a real shame given the florid style of the books. Scripter Robert Gordon shoehorns in the events of the first three novels, and it does make for an uneven tone. The sequences with Billy Connolly's Uncle Monty, while an important part of the saga on the page, do little to advance the action here, while Streep is so good as the neurotic Aunt Josephine you wish she had more to do. Other supporting players - including Luis Guzman and Jennifer Coolidge - are so underused you almost wonder why they bothered to sign on in the first place.
Still, Snicket-heads will naturally be thrilled to see their heroes recreated so deftly and vividly; the production design and costumes stay true to the spirit of the book and are impossible to fault. Those who have become accustomed to more epic Yuletide fare over the past few years may be harder to convince, but if you sit back, relax and just accept it for what it is - an enjoyable, escapist Gothic pantomime - you will go home happy.
Silberling does a good job of introducing Snicket to the big screen in an impressive adaptation that's always smart, even if it's rarely spectacular.