“There is a town in Maine where every storybook character you’ve ever known is trapped between two worlds, victims of a powerful curse. Only one knows the truth, and only one can break her spell.”
ABC has had a very important asset going for it for years. It’s one that the network has seldom taken any advantage of. That asset is its parent company. You see, ABC is part of the Walt Disney family. With the rich history of stories the studio has in its arsenal going back to the 1920’s, it was only a matter of time before some clever people decided to find a way to use that rich history into a television series. That time has arrived, and the result is Once Upon A Time. It’s the most clever and original series to hit the tube in a long time.
In the land of fairy tales, it’s an important day. Snow White (Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Dallas) are finally about to get married. All of the big fairy tale characters are there, and the entire fairy tale world has gathered in celebration. It’s a happy day, indeed, until the wedding is crashed by the Evil Queen (Parrilla). She’s got a thing about happy endings, and she’s about to take away everyone’s happiness in one fell swoop. She’s enacted a dark curse that will transport everyone to a world where there is no magic and they have lost that which was most important to them. That world happens to be our world, more specifically Storybrooke, Maine. In this New England town time has come to a grinding halt. These people are stuck in mundane lives that will just go on and on. It’s a little like Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave. No one can enter or leave the town. They do not remember who they once were. Loves have been lost. Hope, it seems, is also gone.
But the fairy folks gave themselves an out to break the curse. Snow White’s daughter Emma (Morrison) has been spirited away to a safe place away from the coming curse. It is prophesized that on her 28th birthday, she’ll find her family and lift the curse. You see, true love can break any curse.
Enter Emma on her 28th birthday. She’s a bounty hunter and very much alone. That was until a knock at the door brought her face to face with 10-year-old Henry (Gilmore). He’s the son she gave up for adoption. He’s found her for a very specific reason. Henry has a storybook, and he’s the only one who knows that it’s all true. He knows who these people used to be, and he knows that it’s Emma’s destiny to come to Maine and break the curse. Of course, she doesn’t believe a word of it, but she takes Henry home anyway. There she discovers that Henry’s adopted mother is Regina, the town’s mayor and also the aforementioned Evil Queen. Snow White is Mary Margaret and an elementary school teacher. Jiminy Cricket (Sbarge) is a therapist. Prince Charming is a coma patient at the local hospital. Red Riding Hood is Ruby (Ory), a waitress at the local diner and bar, Granny’s, run by, you guessed it…. Granny (Elliott). There’s also the local pawnbroker and feared deal-maker Mr. Gold (Carlyle), who is really the devilish Rumplestiltskin.
Emma decides to stay when she meets resistance from Mayor Regina and begins to fear for Henry’s safety. She ends up the town sheriff where she must deal with Regina’s evil plots to interfere with her performing her foretold part in freeing the characters.
The series will often remind you of Lost. That’s no accident, either. You’ll find plenty of Lost cast and crew members throughout the show’s credits. There is also a deep-rooted mythology of symbolism that plays very much like the mysteries of Lost. You get that same feeling of isolation. Originally, only Emma and Henry could leave town. Now that the curse has been lifted anyone can leave, but they lose their fairy tale identity and revert to their mundane persona.
Each episode splits its time between the happenings of Storybrooke and back in the time before the curse. Although the Snow White story is the prominent tale here, these flashbacks reveal a complicated integration of many characters and stories from various tales. You’ll find characters like Cinderella, Belle, Pinocchio, King Midas, Hansel & Gretel, and even a werewolf or two as part of these story-land segments. And, of course, each has a corresponding character stuck in Storybrooke. The fairyland segments are heavy in green-screen and quite imaginative and larger than life. That part of the tale is not linear, and we go from time to time in those days before the curse. It all adds up to background information that does help to piece the final solution to the puzzle together. You’ll find lavish costumes and fanciful creatures. The familiar tales will interact in ways unlike how we remember the tales. Rumpe1stiltskin becomes the Beast to Belle’s Beauty, and Red Riding Hood becomes the werewolf story we always knew it really was.
The cast is also quite good. Robert Carlyle steals every scene he is in. He also has the most diversity between his Storybrooke character and his fairyland character. Rumpelstiltskin is quite a prominent character here and the only one who remembers who he really is and why he’s here. He’s installed his own back door to keep him from falling under the Evil Queen’s thumb. Carlyle certainly gets to have the most fun as the flamboyant Rump and delivers the most maniacal and hideous giggles in the role. His face is painted gold. As the “mundane” Mr. Gold, he’s merely cold and calculating and a convincing devil character at all times. Still, you never really quite know which side he is truly on. Ginnifer Goodwin and Lana Parilla have too close a look to be as distinctive as the characters should be. Parilla is by far the more convincing and better performance. Of course, it really is more fun to play evil than it is to portray good. Raphael Sbarge is terribly underused as Jiminy and doesn’t appear in almost half of the episodes. He’s the show’s grounding character and certainly should have more to do. Young Jared Gilmore is infectious as Henry and shows a lot of energy and passion in the part. Of course, the true lead here is Jennifer Morrison as Emma. She doesn’t really have a counterpart in fairyland, so she doesn’t get to stretch the performance as much. Maybe that’s for the best. She represents us here and we see, at least the mundane world, through her eyes.
Now the curse has been lifted, and everyone here knows who they truly are. You would think that the story ideas would shrivel under these circumstances. Give the writers a ton of credit for finding a way to make this very much a different and fresh show in season two while still delivering everything that the fans have come to love and identify the series with.
As you can imagine there’s no love lost for Regina who is still mayor, but in name only. Now everyone knows that she’s the one who brought them there. The show also changes format for about six episodes. Snow and Emma get sucked back to the Enchanted Forest where they have to try to find a way back. That’s going to be made harder by the fact that Cora (Hershey) is there and wants to beat them back to Storybrooke. If you thought Regina was evil, wait until you catch Cora in action. They are assisted by Mulan (Chung) another in the Disney stable of animated characters. For these episodes the alternate story involves this subplot instead of a look back before the curse.
There are plenty of new fairy tales incorporated into this season. Peter Pan’s Hook (O’Donoghue) becomes quite a central character as he changes sides at least twice an episode. Peter Pan appears to be a dark shadow figure and not the friendly character he has been portrayed as in the Disney film. Of course, Neverland’s characters have plenty of fleshing out to come in season three. The second season ends with the core characters on a ship heading for Neverland to rescue young Henry.
Other tales reimagined here include Jack and the Beanstalk, except this time it’s Jackie and the Beanstalk. Of course, her friends call her Jack. She’s played by Smallville’s Cassidy Freeman. The giant’s name is Tiny, and he’s played by Lost’s lovable Hurley Jorge Garcia.
The tales go beyond the fairy kind. Frankenstein is brought to life with Alias’s David Anders playing Dr. Whale, who was Dr. Frankenstein in the other world. Fans of the Universal original 1931 film will appreciate the tribute. James Whale, is of course, the director who brought both Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein alive for Universal.
There is a strong theme of redemption running through the second season. That’s both a good thing and a bit of a liability. It keeps the relatively evil characters more interesting, but there are times the show takes it a bit too far. There are entirely too many scenes of Cora, Regina and Gold talking about wanting to change and do better. That’s nice and all, but real evil characters don’t consider themselves evil at all, and all of this angst gets a bit old. Perhaps the effect is made more so when you’re able to watch several episodes back to back. It might not appear this obvious and repetitious during a season viewing.
There have been some rumblings among the show’s core fans that Once Upon A Time has suffered a bit of a sophomore slump. Certainly, there are moments when the show does indeed appear to let you down. Chalk it up to the incredible amount of experimentation that is done here. You can’t say it has gone stale. Where else can you find Prince Charming giving dating advice to Rumplestiltskin? As diversions go, this one is better than most.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The picture is nothing short of stunning for a television series. The fairytale land is particularly magical. The image gives us nice textures in the environments and costumes. Some of the computer-generated environments are a bit obvious, and the sharpness of the image can work against the presentation on those instances. Colors are vibrant and shiny. You do get the atmosphere of a hyper-fantastic world. Black levels are solid in the rare instances where they are required.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is dominated by dialog. That isn’t to say there aren’t some rather fanciful uses of surrounds. You’ll find them more aggressive in the fantastic world. The musical numbers are clean and dynamic. It’s a solid audio presentation without actually calling much attention to itself.
All of the features are in HD.
Commentary & Deleted Scenes on select episodes.
Good Morning, Storybrooke: (12:10) This is a mock morning show from the fictional town.
A Fractured Family Tree: (7:08) Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland narrates the complicated family ties between the characters. Without spoiling the surprise, I will tell you there is a “I’m your father, Luke” moment this season.
Sincerely, Hook: (5:24) Colin O’Donoghue talks about the Hook character.
Girl Power: (13:05) A look at the female characters and how they are much stronger than their fairytale counterparts.
A lot of this season is taken up with the Alice In Wonderland theme. There is, of course, a pretty good reason for this. There will be a spin-off series in the fall that centers on that tale and its characters. I suspect it will also grow to include other tales and events. The cast looks solid, and I’m interested to see where this one goes. Fans think they have their own ideas, but “magic is so unpredictable in this world”.