Given the Nickelodeon Films logo, it’s not unreasonable to think The Littlest Elf, a retro-looking throwback to the Rankin-Bass specials, is just another forgettable short to be shoehorned in before Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
That is, until one of the elf’s cohorts brandishes a shotgun at his side.
At that point, Lemony Snicket (Jude Law) warns us that The Littlest Elf is not the movie we’re going to see, but instead the terrible tale he’s about to tell.
Snicket is a fast-moving, entertaining mixture of Addams Family-style art direction and swooping cameras, tender and touching ruminations on childhood grief for lost loved ones and the almost complete taming of Jim Carrey, who ruined the last literary adaptation for which he donned face-covering makeup (Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas).
The Lemony Snicket film is based upon the first three books in a popular ongoing anthology for children about the Baudelaire children — Violet (Emily Browning), the eldest and a crafty inventor; Klaus (Liam Aiken), who possesses a photographic memory for all things academic; and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), a toddler with her own baby-talk language and a strong set of chompers for biting. Snicket, a hidden-in-the-shadows journalist, recounts their tale.
The first in their series of unfortunate events is their orphaning at the hands of a fire at their lavish Baudelaire mansion. They are then placed in the care of the nefarious Count Olaf (Carrey, who resembles a balding vulture), an actor claiming to be a distant relative. The Baudelaire children soon learn all Olaf wants is his hands on their whopping Baudelaire fortune, which he can get should they “accidentally” die.
So begins Olaf’s attempts to off the children, showing up in different disguises as they legally leapfrog from guardian to guardian (Billy Connolly as Monty Montgomery, again playing the same jovial Scotsman, and Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, playing against type as an extreme pessimist). Interwoven is the mystery of how exactly they knew the Baudelaire parents and what exactly caused the fire.
Snicket is a triumph of production design from Rick Heinrichs, whose past work with Tim Burton is the instant visual touchstone. Every set has a craggy, cheerless appearance and a constantly overcast sky has rarely looked as beautiful as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (another Burton alum) makes it.
The film has more quality players in its cast (Jennifer Coolidge, Luis Guzman, Cedric the Entertainer) than it knows what to do with and, at times, feels too similarly structured, but it’s redeemed by its themes (one of which — paying attention to children and their concerns — is espoused by the evil Olaf himself.
As to its other theme, director Brad Silberling is no stranger to death, featured in all of his films and no doubt fueled by his memories of the violent murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, an actress he was dating at the time of her death.
Similar to the Harry Potter franchise, Snicket tells a children’s story with darker undertones that nevertheless holds out the same brief moments of hope in comforting memories of dead parents. Silberling, as in command of those ideas as he was in 2002’s Moonlight Mile, allows the film to end on a fine note with the discovery of a long-lost keepsake.
What he’s not able to do entirely (albeit better than most directors) is not fall victim to turning the camera on Carrey and waiting for something random and funny to happen. It’s fine when he’s playing characters such as Ace Ventura or Lloyd Christmas, but not here. Thankfully, Carrey reins in his multiple-role turn to play more in the vein of Peter Sellers.
Snicket tells us early on that should we want to see The Littlest Elf, it’s probably just starting in another auditorium. But who would want to do that, especially given the choice of watching a children’s film that rivals the intelligent, literary sensibilities of The Princess Bride?