LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS — *** — Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken; narrated by Jude Law; rated PG (violence, mild profanity, mild vulgarity).

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" manages to squeeze the first three books in the popular series into one movie — and a movie that's less than 100 minutes long.

That alone should send a message to the Harry Potter filmmakers.

Obviously, the Lemony Snicket books aren't nearly as complex or lengthy as the Harry Potter books, but they're full of their own peculiar flavor, which the makers of this often dark comedy have managed to capture. What's really unfortunate is that, as rewarding as the movie is, some of the books' best bits are missing.

Also, there are some very dark and scary elements. In fact, it's so dark that parents might want to think twice before bringing young children to see it.

The story centers on the Baudelaire orphans, inventive Violet (Emily Browning), studious Klaus (Liam Aiken) and infant Sunny (played by twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), whose incredibly sharp baby teeth come in handy when it's least expected.

Their parents die in a mysterious house fire, and now they're being passed from one distant relative to the next. First up is Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an actor who is not only cruel to the children but clearly only taking the kids in to get his hands on the fortune they've inherited.

From there they go to the households of kindly reptile expert Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and then to their extremely phobic Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep), whose home rests precariously on a hill overlooking a lake filled with hordes of hungry leeches.

There's definitely a bit of Tim Burton in the film's look; it was directed by Brad Silberling, whose earlier films — "Casper," "City of Angels," "Moonlight Mile" — have not been nearly so visually arresting. And actor Jude Law, who narrates the film, gets the "voice" of the books right, with help from screenwriter Robert Gordon. (The way in which subtitles are used to translate Sunny's baby talk is a clever touch.)

As for Carrey, who plays three roles, his over-the-top turn here is actually appropriate for a change. But the young performers manage to hold their own with him; the adorable Hoffman twins, in particular, steal the movie. Similarly, Connolly and Streep appear to be having a good time, even if their roles are regrettably brief.

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is rated PG for some scenes of violence and peril (including an attack by leeches), scattered use of mild profanity (mostly religiously based) and some mildly vulgar humor. Running time: 97 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com