Once upon a time, bounty hunter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) got the surprise of her life when 10-year-old Henry (Jared Gilmore) arrived at her doorstep claiming to be the son she gave up for adoption long ago. Turns out, he lives in Storybrooke, a sleepy town in upstate Maine that doesn’t seem to be on any sort of map.
It is there Henry claims that his stepmother Regina (Lana Parrilla) is nothing more than evil queen responsible for a terrible bit of magic involving the entire populace. According to him, all residing there are actually fairy tale characters with no knowledge of their true identities, including schoolteacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) whom he insists is actually no one other than the fairest of them all Snow White.
But that’s not all Henry is claiming. Mary Margaret isn’t just Snow White. No, she’s also Emma’s long lost mother, making her the storybook champion destined to end the curse and stop Regina’s reign of terror forever.
Here’s the deal about Once Upon a Time, as silly as it can be, as hard a time as creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis have at maintaining a balance between the modern world and the fairy tale one, the show’s heart is so in the right place that any missteps its does happen to make are almost immediately forgivable. More, the cast, most notably Morrison, Goodwin and especially Parrilla, are perfectly cast, each filling their role to near perfection. This show is an entertaining genre mash-up that goes from fantasy to adventure to drama to comedy to someplace delectably in-between with remarkable ease, and as such all 22 episodes fly by almost as fast as the fluttering of a fairy’s glittery wings.
Early on, the show works best during the real world sequences. There is hardened reality to these sequences that belies the storybook machinations at the heart of the tale. Emma, Regina, Henry, Mary Margaret and all the rest of the characters come to life in engaging and surprising ways, all of them showcasing multidimensional traits that keep them (or their plans for their respective futures) from getting stale.
It’s the fairy tale portions of the first few episodes where the problems tend to lie. It is here that the majority of the narrative must be explained, everything so campy and over the top the balance it strikes with the competing stories in our realm is an uneasy one to say the least. It takes a while for the showrunners to get a feel for these sequences, to find the right way to balance performance with plot in a way that’s not unintentionally silly. It doesn’t help that the sets and CGI backdrops are remarkably cheesy looking for the most part, everything having the feel of a cheap video game more than a high-profile Disney produced series heavily influenced by their animated classics.
That happens around the sixth or seventh episode. Emma’s quest begins to take shape, while all the reasons for Regina’s descent into vindictive madness are made more and more clear. While the heightened reality of the fairy tale world remains, things aren’t so over the top that the descend into the same camp terrain the opening episodes did. The balance between the realms becomes more and more confident and self-assured as the series progresses, and by the time the final four hours of material are presented the show truly is running on all cylinders with mesmerizing ease.
It also helps immeasurably that the series has an ace in the hole in the form of Robert Carlyle that cannot be dismissed. His presence is a constant reminder of just how great this show can be, the heights it can ascend to. He crafts a remarkably complicated portrait of heroic villainy, his Mister Gold-slash-Rumplestiltskin having the potential to become of the great television characters in recent memory.
Can Once Upon a Time maintain its momentum? Can it build upon the seeds planted in this first season to deliver an even more epically entertaining bit of magic in its second one? I don’t honestly know. A lot of me feels like this show easily could have, and maybe should have, come to an end after its initial 22 episode run, that the creators should have had Emma’s victory been final and a ‘happily ever after’ achieved.
That said, I’m curious to see where things go next, that final episode of season one so wonderful I’m chomping at the bit to discover how Emma, Henry, Regina and Mary Margaret’s respective stories evolve. Once Upon a Time is a heck of a lot of fun, and for my part I don’t see said fun ending any time soon.
The first season of Once Upon a Time is presented on five dual-layer MPEG-4 AVC Video 50GB Blu-ray's with 1.78:1/1080p transfers. The good news – these transfers are excellent. I couldn’t find a thing wrong with them for the most part, easily some of the best hi-def presentations of a current television series I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. The bad news – they’re so good they inadvertently make the effects and fake backdrops look even more noticeable, especially during episodes where the characters are quite obviously interacting with 100-percent digital environments.
These Blu-rays feature an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack and comes with optional English SDH subtitles.
Extras here include:
· Five Audio Commentaries – “Pilot,” series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis; “7:15 a.m.,” actors Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas; “Skin Deep,” actor Robert Carlyle and writer Jane Espenson; “The Stable Boy,” Horowitz, Kitsis and actor Lana Parrilla; “A Land Without Magic,” Horowitz, Kitsis and actor Jennifer Morrison
· Once Upon a Time: Origins
· Fairy Tales in the Modern World featurette
· Building Character featurette
· Welcome to Storybrooke featurette
· The Story I Remember…Snow White
· Fairest Bloopers of Them All
· Deleted Scenes
The Blu-ray exclusive is the “Origins” extra, a semi-interactive piece that allows viewers to go inside a variety of fairy tales (including Snow White, of course). It’s okay, if not particularly involving, and as an exclusive extra goes it’s hardly worth crowing about.
As for the rest, the commentaries, especially the ones on “The Stable Boy” and “A Land Without Magic,” are pretty great, only the one with Goodwin and Dallas on “7:15 a.m.” lacking in anything essential. The featurettes are solid, the blooper reel a tad above average and the quirky The Story I Remember fun if a bit on the pointless side of the spectrum.
Once Upon a Time is an imaginative blast, perfectly cast and (more often than not) sensationally realized. It doesn’t always work, and the balance between the modern world and the fantastical one doesn’t always mesh, but the emotions at the heart of the tale are honest and true, making the journey towards the inspired final destination a sublime one easy to become enchanted with.