'Lemony Snicket' books find fresh new life as Netflix series

Neil Patrick Harris in "A Series Of Unfortunate Events"

(CNN)There are relatively few do-overs in Hollywood, but Barry Sonnenfeld gets one and makes the most of it. Having bowed out of directing the 2004 movie version of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," he returns to help launch the new Netflix series, a sprightly, whimsical affair featuring Neil Patrick Harris in Jim Carrey's hammy Count Olaf role.

Titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events," the show features the credited Lemony Snicket as a straight-faced narrator, played perfectly by Patrick Warburton, who seems to be channeling "The Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling.
"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, then you would be better off somewhere else," Lemony warns, later piping in to explain things like how Count Olaf misused the word "standoffish."
Working with the books' author, Daniel Handler, Sonnenfeld and showrunner Mark Hudis have infused the show with a lemony-fresh feel, conjuring a series similar to the fantastical tone of "Pushing Daisies," another Sonnenfeld project that, alas, met a rather untimely end on ABC.
    At its core this is a very dark children's tale, featuring the three Baudelaire kids, the orphaned heirs to a fortune that the aforementioned Count desperately wants.
    The kids are Violet (Malina Weissman), 14; Klaus (Louis Hynes), and their baby sister Sunny, whose babbling is amusingly subtitled. (As an aside, whoever was responsible for casting the baby should be awarded an honorary Emmy right now.)
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    Admittedly, this is a fairly slim construct, and the episodes don't quite sustain the initial burst of energy, as the children endure one attempt after another by Count Olaf -- aided by his peculiar henchmen and a variety of disguises -- to either do them in or compel them to sign over their inheritance.
    Overall, though, the show proves a good deal of fun, and Harris dives into his over-the-top character with considerable gusto. It's also something that parents ought to be able to watch with their older kids -- enjoying the clever wordplay, like an argument over when to say "literally" versus "figuratively" -- which qualifies as a fairly rare occurrence in the realm of premium cable and streaming.
    Given that the movie did reasonably well but failed to transform the books into a cinematic franchise, credit Netflix with seeing its potential in this eight-episode format. Because the series of events that led to this new version turns out to have been fortunate, indeed.
    "A Series of Unfortunate Events" premieres January 13 on Netflix.