Delightful: 'Lemony' keeps its pledge

While the debate rages about how young a child can be to watch Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events without being traumatized for life, the real question should be how childless adults can find an excuse to see the movie. It's a treat for anyone who is or ever was a child.

What may be the toughest element for children to deal with is the first "unfortunate event," the demise of the Beaudelaire parents in a fire that destroys their mansion. If previous generations survived the deaths of Bambi's mother and Simba's father– some without becoming dependent on drugs– today's kids should be able to handle this tragedy. The adventures that follow are less frightening (and more funny) than Hansel and Gretel's encounter with the witch or Little Red Riding Hood's with the wolf.

Based on the first three in Daniel Handler's series of books for older pre-adolescents, Series is refreshingly not dumbed-down. Although some of the humor is broadened to make the terror less intense, phrases like "the refraction and convergence of light" go untranslated, and Sunny's gurgles are subtitled so reading skills are required.

The comedy is perfectly tailored to Jim Carrey's manic style. He's mixing serious roles with comic ones in trying to win an Oscar without losing his commercial viability, and this may be his best comedic part yet. It combines the insane energy of his youth with just enough mature characterization to give it structure. Poor Meryl Streep may be able to act better than anyone alive, but Carrey blows her away when it comes to overacting.

Jude Law narrates as Lemony Snicket, who– when seen at all– is only in silhouette. It's one of the final roles of Law's fall six-pack, and while he was good in Alfie and Closer, this suggests he may be better when he's heard but not seen.

Lemony warns viewers to leave if they want cheery entertainment about a little elf, while he introduces the trio about to become the Baudelaire orphans: 14-year-old Violet (Emily Browning), who invents gadgets by piecing together found objects; middle child Klaus (Liam Aiken), who reads voraciously and has a photographic memory; and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), who bites everything she can get her teeth around.

When they're orphaned, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall) the banker, turns the children over to a distant cousin, Count Olaf (Carrey), who promises, "I will raise the orphans as if they were actually wanted." What's wanted is the fortune their parents left them, but Olaf can't get his hands on that until Violet turns 18... unless something unfortunate happens to the children.

After they manage to escape his clutches and his first murder attempt, Count Olaf follows the children in various disguises to each of their successive foster homes (Billy Connelly as herpetologist Uncle Monty, Streep as Aunt Josephine, who's afraid of everything from refrigerators to realtors).

When Olaf learns that killing the children won't get him their money because only "blood relatives and married couples" can inherit, he plots to marry one of them; and even though it's Massachusetts, he chooses Violet. (Well, she is the oldest.)

Robert Gordon's adaptation doesn't neglect any age group for long, while director Brad Silberling keeps the pace up so attention never flags, maintains a consistent tone with multigenerational appeal, and makes the most of every "sickly moment of dark surprise."

The cast includes some familiar actors (e.g., Jennifer Coolidge, Luis Guzman, Craig Ferguson and the Aflac Duck) who appear so briefly or in such heavy makeup you're likely to miss them. Although he vanishes as quickly as anyone, you won't miss Dustin Hoffman, who wanders in like he's still trying to find Neverland.

"What appear to be a series of unfortunate events," it's said in the end, "may in fact be just the first steps of a journey." In sequel-happy Hollywood, you can bank on that, and if the quality stays this high, it's going to be a wonderful journey.