The 2011 network TV season’s second fairy tale-based series makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week as “Once Upon a Time” prepares for its second season of curse-breaking fun.
In this show, the evil queen from the “Snow White” tale has cursed all of the fairy tale characters to live in a dreary New England town without magic and without memory of their previous lives. They don’ t age (though this is kinda fuzzy) and just live in a perpetual state of boring existence, unable to leave. (Bad stuff happens if they try.)
The queen, Regina (Lana Parrilla), who’s the mayor of Storybrooke, is the only one who maintains her memories … or is she?
The main conflict comes when Regina’s son, Henry (Jared Gilmore), adopted here in our world as a baby who is now 10, gets hold of a book of fairy tales and figures out the truth: His birth mother, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), is the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and she’s the only one who can break the curse. So he tracks her down, sneaks away and brings her back, much to Regina’s consternation. Despite being an evil queen, she does seem to genuinely love her son and didn’t know about his heritage.
The greatest fun in the show is figuring out which “real” person is which fairy tale character (if Henry doesn’t say outright). Some are obvious from the get-go, such as Granny and Little Red Riding Hood. Others take a while: Rumplestiltskin, the queen’s mirror. And of course, there are several new characters.
And then there’s all the Disneyfication. This is an ABC show, and it has Disney’s blessing to use its versions. So the Seven Dwarfs have the Disney names (but do get an interesting backstory). Malificent is in there, as are Belle and Jiminy Cricket. In one of the cuter uses, Jiminy Cricket (town psychologist Dr. Hopper) has a dalmatian named Pongo in our world. But even if characters have Disney names, they’re not the Disney stories.
Heck, they’re often not even the classic stories as we know them. They’re cleverly twisted and changed to fit the new mythology, largely to make Rumplestiltskin a real power player. It turns out he had his fingers in a lot more fairy tales than we ever knew. As played by Robert Carlyle, he’s one of the best parts of the show: shrewd antique dealer/loan shark/real estate magnate/lawyer/etc. Mr. Gold in our world and manic monster in the fairy tales, the go-to guy if you need some powerful magic.
Meanwhile, in a “keep your enemies closer” thing, Emma eventually becomes the town sheriff. She doesn’t believe the fairy tale stuff, but she does think Regina is up to no good in town and is a bad mom for Henry.
And there you have the premise for a great show. Goodwin and Dallas are lovely as the ill-fated couple (he’s in a coma at the start of the show), and Henry’s relentless determination to get Emma to believe him is inspiring. And all the tweaks to fairy tales, along with the intricate ways they’re tied together, are fun to watch.
The show does occasionally stumble on its own internal logic, though. The one that keeps bugging me is the passage of time. The characters are supposed to live in a sort of ageless limbo, but Henry is a regular boy from our world who ages from birth to 10 years in Storybrooke. Nobody notices he ages while all the other kids presumably don’t? He never asks why none of his classmates get any older?
To its credit, the show moves fairly rapidly. It doesn’t drag out the “will she or won’t she?” of Emma’s disbelief and role in the curse too long and gives us a decisive season finale that sets up a whole new set of problems for her and Regina — and all of Storybrooke — for the season premiere Sept. 30. (Argh! I still have to wait a month?)
The set has some nice extras. In a Blu-ray exclusive feature, Dallas reveals some of the origins of several fairy tales, tracing them all the way back to Greek or even Assyrian mythology before the Grimm brothers got their hands on them. And he only mentions Disney when discussing “The Little Mermaid.”
Other extras, such as “Building Character,” which tracks the adaptation of Belle for the show, show just how much green screen is used. Obviously, all those fairy-tale sets can’t be built from scratch, but they fooled my eye on some stuff, for sure. Way to go, SFX team! There’s also a nice look at Steveston, British Columbia, the Canadian town that is transformed into Storybrooke for filming.
There were some concerns that with “Grimm” on NBC, that we had one fairy tale show too many at the start of the season, but they’ve both grown to be modest hits with distinct points of view and well-deserved ratings.