Be warned there are “very few happy things” in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
“Turn away immediately and watch something more pleasant instead,” author Lemony Snickett (Patrick Warburton) tells us.
But when you experience, whimsy, dread, theatrics and gothic hallmarks you are compelled to plough on for better or worse.
In the new Netflix series, based on the books by Snicket (the pen name of American author Daniel Handler), director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men in Black, Beverly Hills Cop, Pushing Daisies) brings a pop-up storybook style.
At the centre of his saga is Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, who becomes guardian of three orphans to whom he is a distant relative: 14yo Violet Baudelaire (Malina Weissman), 12 yo Klaus Baudelaire (Louis Hynes) and baby Sunny (Presley Smith).
After their parents perish in a fire, the children inherit a fortune -when Violet turns 21- which the mean-spirited Count has firmly in his sights. Insisting he is a theatrical performer, he hands the children a long list of punishing chores from cleaning to cooking, when they aren’t dodging rats and endeavouring to sleep comfortably together in a single bed.
But the cluey siblings decide to gather their wits and hatch plans to foil Olaf, whilst piecing together the truth about their parents’ death. They befriend a benevolent new neighbour, Judge Justice Strauss (Joan Cusack), who has no children of her own.
Amid the opening episode’s Dickensian gloom there’s plenty of opportunities for Harris to show off even performing a musical number -shades of Doctor Horrible here. He makes a splendid small screen Count Olaf, given Jim Carrey’s stamp on this character has been so dominant.
Harris (who is also a producer) also gets all of the best lines: “That’s money -the most important substance on earth besides applause and lip balm.”
Child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes are pitch perfect as the two Baudelaire orphans but are at risk of being upstaged by Presley Smith as baby Sunny, whose cries and squeaks are subtitled as wry dialogue.
Deadpan Patrick Warburton links it all together as the series narrator, appearing randomly in scenes without being noticed by the characters.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld keeps things dark and zeros in on colourful performances on a black and white canvas. If you’ve ever seen Pushing Daisies, you know just what to expect with the visuals here.
There are 8 episodes in this theatrical, imaginative tale which lends itself to family viewing (older kids, at least). Or do as your told and watch something more pleasant instead.
A Series of Unfortunate Events premieres Friday on Netflix.