Unveiled after a long and well-rehearsed marketing preparation, the new Netflix series is a challenge in many ways for the giant. With the Disastrous Adventures of the Baudelaire Orphans, Netflix has to prove that its taste for risk and its methods can bring the whole family together in front of a show.

The success of Daniel Handler’s early novels,A Serie of Unfortunate Events,, whets Hollywood’s appetite. Yet while the magic and mystery of these teenage novels fill bookstores and literary events, Handler is first and foremost a frustrated novelist. An indescribable pessimist whose pen is weighed down by the demands and darkness of a tormented writer.

From the birth of Lemony Snicket

In his early novels, under his real name, Daniel Handler does not yet imagine Count Olaf and his stories are rather a sinister dissection of adolescence and our societies, fromBasic Eight, a dark and satyric novel about the cruelty of this ungrateful age in Watch Your Mouth, his second novel, described by his publisher as a “opera of incest that mixes Jewish mythology with the turpitudes of today’s sexuality” (sic).

Daniel Handler, Philadelphia Inquirer

Daniel Handler, Philadelphia Inquirer

But success is far from being achieved and Handler is unable to make a profit from his writing activity. He was in turn a screenwriter or even an accordionist at the same time, but it was only when he failed that he accepted his publisher’s advice: write for young people. And he, the somewhat cursed novelist, began to immerse himself in children’s literature, an area then marked by the tidal wavePotter. But the writer hates, and lets it be known, this literature which he finds meek and poor.

It is only forced by failure that he will accept his publisher’s advice: write for the youth.

In his mind, however, the first sentences of what will make the success of the Orphans begin to take shape. Based on an inversion of the fairy tale, Handler develops a universe where three gifted, intelligent and good children are tirelessly hunted down and abused by adults and society at large.

A Bad Beginning, 1999

Original illustration of the first volume: A Bad Beginning, 1999

The anxieties of the man inBasic Eighthave not disappeared: they gradually turn into sinister characters, tragic destinies and stolen childhoods. And if pessimism has not brought success to his adult novels, teenagers find in Handler – now called Snicket – a subversion of the genre reserved for young people, as well as a humour and a pen as clever as it is educational. Born in the failure of a novelist, the sagaOrphelins Baudelairedraws all its originality from the enigmatic figure of its writer and narrator.

It is therefore with the pseudonym Lemony Snicket that he attracts the attention of new fans. By playing on concepts, Handler is a pointed scholar, the author sows confusion between Snicket’s real existence, his own role in written history and the veracity of the facts. According to Handler and his narrator Snicket, all the facts reported inDisastrous Adventuresare real. Here we can understand Handler’s strategy that pays off: instead of using his novels as the sole motifs of the Snicket universe, he manages to extend the world ofBaudelaire to his readers, who are always loyal to the author, and above all to his own public figure. He manages to become one with his universe and it works at full speed in bookstores.

Hollywood-proof bestsellers

But from this singular birth of a franchise stems many difficulties. Problems that will appear for the first time when writing and directing the first adaptation of the saga in 2004. Nickelodeon commissions Barry Sonnenfeld and Daniel Handler to make a feature film about theBaudelaire, but when the script is written, budget changes force the production team to be reconstituted and Handler is left on the bench with Sonnenfeld, both replaced. Ironically, the film, though successful, will be a flop. The franchise is discontinued and no further action is contemplated… until Netflix.

The SVoD giant, in search of a new big franchise, takes over the adaptation rights of the saga from Paramount. Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, The Adams Family) quickly joined the team and resumed his project abandoned in 2004. A fan of the novels, he is joined by Handler, who also participates in the writing of the series.

Netflix offers the two men revenge for the missed opportunity of the first movie, so this time they intend to do it right. Well endowed by the giant on the budget side, the casting is long but allows a team to form around the two old friends: the arrival of Neil Patrick Harris allows the adventure to be finally launched. The comic actor, revealed to the world inHow I Met Your Mother, takes the lead in the production, starts recording the music for the credits and enters the whimsical costumes of Count Olaf. TheBaudelairemachine is thus well and truly ready for a new journey.

A series literally literary

But what have we learned from the failure of the 2004 film? That it is much less easy to adapt the Baudelaire’s than its shelf space in bookstores suggests. For if the saga seems to assemble a series of rather classic dramatic twists and turns that can easily be translated on screen, there is above all another element, which in our opinion is the real reason for its success: the Snicket feather.

All the more so since, if we isolate the subject from its narrative,The Orphansand their 13 misadventures are far from a brilliant odyssey and indulge in simple structures. Understand: by removing Snicket, and his double role, you lose a lot of the flavour of the franchise.

Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton

Lemony Snicket, played by Patrick Warburton

But it seems obvious that this is the pitfall that the series seeks to avoid at all costs. And as a proof of his good will, the show takes the time and the manners to adapt Snicket’s zany deliriums to the standards of the small screen. The back covers mischievously asked readers not to read the novel: the result here is the improbable credits, sung by Harris, asking viewers not to watch the series. Between the lines of the novel, Snicket intervened on numerous occasions to underline the humour of the situations or to play on his status as a narrator who is both homodiegetic and heterodiegetic. Here, Snicket is embodied, intersperses the scenes and, above all, quickly becomes involved in the story.

And this is the masterstroke of the Netflix series: to transform what seems to be the real reason for the success of the novels into a precise method for his series.

And it works, because the main charms of the show come from its tone, humour and cynical antics. Snicket and Olaf are used to play out the comic role that is fluidly exchanged between the narrator, his puns, his anachronisms and the Count, a Harris dressed as a Machiavellian, ignorant and stupid clown.

And through a multitude of references, each more pointed than the last, the dialogues manage to support a sense of humour rarely weakened by drama, quite the contrary. The result is therefore rewarded by a good rhythm of galéjades and burlesque.

Unfiltered humour that blends pleasantly with the pastel darkness of the cartoon drama that underpins the script. For if the sets, music, costumes and characters share the same appetite for horrendous excess and false sinisterness, they also share a bit of a DIY and twisted, papier-mâché villains and grim witchcraft that inevitably remind us of Burton. Harris’ pastiche nose and wobbly beard, which could destroy the foundations of the drama, do not disarm the character. And on the contrary, Harris camps a crazier and more megalomaniacal Olaf thanks to his charms.

Just like the other tutors of the Orphans who also take advantage of a surplus of burlesque style to form atypical characters: Monty Monty is delightful in his whimsical role as an obsessive scientist, and Aunt Josephine (Alfre Woodard fromLuke Cage) becomes a touching, over-emphasized, and touching dummy.

Look away! Look away!

Never realistic, but always dark, Sonnenberg’s direction perfects this ambiguity between the real drama, that of children, and the other drama, that of a world of foolish and tragically immature adults. The photo uses and abuses unreliable colors, pastels or falsely patinated images to anchor the disastrousat the heart of the series’ aesthetics. And as such, the shots of the beach are perfectly mastered: nothing seems more distressing than these three kids, lonely on a dull beach, immortalized as a painting as pale as it is supernatural.

But it’s also thanks to the realization that certain magics (the CGI) sometimes gain in splendor (the snake lab) or in burlesque (the trolley, with its chalky colors and the texture of a big cake). It is all this double reading, which is organized on the screen for a double style, that makes the balance of the Orphansheld and achieved. The work of the sounds, the dialogues and the actors allows us to finalize this inversion which ends up undermining the genre: the bad guys are puppets – Olaf is a jerk who makes you wonder if you should be afraid of him – and the good guys are wacky – Poe is a hateful good guy. And there are many of them.

Olaf - Neil Patrick Harris

Olaf – Neil Patrick Harris

In the end, what remains of the series, once its manners, effects and style evaporate, is the cruel and poetic opposition between the world of children – represented by the Orphans – where intelligence, culture and compassion reign, and that of adults where all values are reversed and only greed and selfishness seem to really prevail. We feel the return of the pen of the depressed writer of the 1990s who looks like nothing, in the centre of his huge badge painted with gags, slips a little music sincerely and voluntarily pessimistic.

Unfortunately, the assessment of the adaptation cannot be unanimous. While there are many successes in the adaptation, and Snicket readers will find the dialogue and plot very close to the text, there remains one problem, which recurs frequently throughout the eight episodes. And in our opinion, this problem comes directly from the adaptation: while the series gains by exploiting the potential of the narrator (Lemony Snicket), it also loses in the way it creates its story.

A book being a book, the adaptation sometimes to the forceps of Snicket’s interventions in the show makes the whole often talkative and very descriptive. We often hear the stories before we discover them, and Snicket plays a paradoxical game of spoilersas the episodes go on, which is not always the best effect. Sometimes you wish the show would talk less and do more to put its characters at the heart of the action.

Sometimes we would like the show to talk less and do more to put its characters at the heart of the action.

In this respect, the Netflix additions, although thin – mainly more nuances in the adult characters and the very quick introduction of references to a secret society – show that the team already seems to know the limits of its format. Still too theatrical, we feel from the end of the eighth episode that the second season of the disastrousAdventureswill gain in freedom against the novels. To be perfect, all it would take is a bit of Handler’s truculence, a bit of Sonnenberg’s magic and more character mastery – the keystone of a family series.

If Harris finds in Olaf multiple facets, we cannot say the same of the children who are wobbly from stage to stage. It is very often deplored that they do not more often embody anything other than the poor, desolate victims they are during this first season. To make them heroic protagonists, we will have to give them, as well as the whole cast, more action and less talk.

Our critic may seem paradoxical since she praises the show’s verbose and learned character while reproaching it for being too talkative. But before reuniting Anne, 10, Julien, 17, and their mother Corinne in front of the television one evening, they have to go over and correct her paper many times. It’s the first time Netflix has thrown itself body and soul into a big family production, far from its dramas and comedies. And if we have to judge him on this point, it’s a success: we have little doubt about the smiles and laughter that will follow the warm viewing of a good fresco as zany as it is charming.

In brief

The Disastrous Adventures of the Baudelaire Orphans

Indicative note : 4/5

Scholarly, funny and amazing,The Disastrous Adventuresis a series that is a little out of the ordinary, confirming that the originality of the novels has something to offer the screen, despite the failures of the past. A singularity that is mastered and maintained by Netflix’s show’s biases: the presence of the narrator, the dull universe, the jokes of the adult world, a certain disgust with an unsympathetic society and a fully invested poetic expressionism.

Of course, it lacks a bit of breath: the episodes follow one another without changing structure, the characters seem to have difficulty in breaking away from their limits, and the mystery superimposed on the main storyline clearly lacks flavour and effectiveness. Yet the equation continues to work because the show remains clever, fun and full of good surprise ideas. 

And Netflix, finally, knows how to do something other than adult dramas and children’s comedies. The giant is now in the drama for all. 

Top

  • Sets, costumes, characters
  • Surprising Casting
  • Singular narrative choices

Bof

  • Talks too much.
  • Rhythm too regular
  • Not enough suspense

Elsewhere in the press

  • Télérama : “The Disastrous Adventures of the Baudelaire Orphans reads perfectly on two levels, entertainment full of twists and turns for pre-teens; absurd comedy, full of second degree and nods to pop culture and art in general for the older ones. »
  • The Verge: “A Series of Unfortunate Events gets right what the movie got wrong”
  • The Guardian: “Plot, postmodern suburban steampunkery, black comedy, jokes, vocabulary explanations, themes of grief and abandonment, the wisdom of children compared to grownups who have been corrupted by society, the joy of reading and learning and libraries. Check, check, check – all are excellently here, present and correct. »

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