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‘Lemony Snicket’ is a mostly fortunate event

Jim Carrey stars as the evil guardian of three orphans

The most enthusiastically demented fantasy of the season, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is closer to Edward Gorey and Edward Scissorhands than it is to Pixar or Disney.

Indeed, it’s so perverse that it opens with a Disney-style song, “Loverly Spring,” and a clunkily animated story about a happy little elf — only to pull the rug out from under the audience by informing us that this is NOT the movie we’ll be watching for the next 90 minutes. The happy little elf will be on view in Cinema Two, if that’s what we want, or so says the narrator (Jude Law).

“A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which proceeds to unfold in THIS theater, is a much darker Gothic tale about three orphans who have just lost their parents in a fire. The boy, Klaus (Liam Aiken), is a skeptical bookworm. His more practical sister, Violet (Emily Browning), knows how to make use of his knowledge, while their motormouth baby sister, Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), delivers a cute streak of English-subtitled baby talk.

The orphans are adopted by the wicked Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who promises to raise them “as if they were actually wanted,” while he schemes to dispose of them and rob them of their inheritance. Even when he proves a poor foster parent and the children are taken out of his hands, he pops up in elaborate disguises and accents.

Naturally, only the kids see through him, while their clueless custodian (Timothy Spall), snake-loving Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and phobic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) accept him at his word. Not much more help are a trusting judge (Catherine O’Hara) and an oblivious theater critic (Dustin Hoffman).

The director, Brad Silberling, made a couple of 1990s fantasy hits (“Casper,” “City of Angels”) as well as Hoffman’s offbeat 2002 drama, “Moonlight Mile.” He does a skillful job of entering the children’s mindset, emphasizing their keen sense of abandonment as well as their resourcefulness in battling grown-up greed and stupidity.

The rather patchy script, based on three “Lemony Snicket” books by Daniel Handler, is the work of Robert Gordon, who co-wrote the charming “Star Trek” sendup, “Galaxy Quest.” The production design is by Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for creating the similarly spooky fantasy lands of “Sleepy Hollow.”

Browning and Aiken (Tom Hanks’ son in “Road to Perdition”) are consistently credible as siblings who almost magically complete each other. Connolly and Streep quickly connect with their roles as obsessive adults who are almost too distracted to function, while Hoffman, who has only a couple of lines, draws a solid laugh from each of them.

Carrey, while he’s undoubtedly the marquee attraction here, gives a more labored performance. In the opening scenes, he tries too hard to establish Olaf’s deceitfulness. He’s more successful twisting his face and voice to convince the other adults that he isn’t Olaf. But his funniest, most graceful moment comes in a throwaway scene in which he mimes the movements of a dinosaur.