By Jeff Labrecque
April 26, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Paramount Pictures

Based on the first three novels of the deliciously malicious Lemony Snicket series, A Series of Unfortunate Events chronicles the misfortunes of the three extraordinary Baudelaire orphans, who are left in the not-so-loving care of a wickedly eccentric actor after their parents die in a mysterious fire. You won’t find Roald Dahl or Tim Burton in the credits, but clearly their works influenced this sinister saga. Like many of Dahl’s books, Snicket’s heroes are courageous children plagued by dim-witted adults, and the film’s surreal visual vitality is right out of Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands. (No surprise, as several crew members are Burton vets.)

In addition, Jim Carrey’s untalented thespian Count Olaf is the most outrageous villain since Beetle-juice. Seeing Carrey give life to his bizarre trio of characters — Olaf; Stephano, an Italian snake milker; and Captain Sham, a peg-legged sailor — during preproduction costume tests is pure magic, the highlight of a generous two-disc set that includes more than 15 featurettes, ”orphaned” scenes, and two commentaries (one with the real Lemony Snicket). ”About 80 percent of [Carrey’s] performance in the picture is really cobbled together from improv,” says director Brad Silberling in ”Building a Bad Actor.” Silberling incorporated Carrey’s riffs, but he also couldn’t resist organizing focus groups with young Snicket readers to (rather rigidly) preserve the spirit of the subversive books. Ultimately, whether Silberling satisfies diehards is debatable, and unless you’re already familiar with the entire series’ story arc, you’re bound to feel as alone as a Baudelaire and as bewildered as one of Snicket’s oblivious adults. As Carrey deadpans in ”Interactive Olaf,” ”If Van Gogh had a focus group, he might have two ears right now.”