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Immerse yourself in the magic and mystery of Storybrooke – a sleepy little town where every fairytale character you've ever known is frozen in time and trapped between two worlds, victims of an evil curse. On her 28th birthday, Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) meets Henry (Jared Gilmore), the son she gave up for adoption 10 years ago. Henry believes Emma is the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), prophesied to break a powerful curse. Unconvinced, Emma returns Henry to Storybrooke, where she encounters the enigmatic Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) and clashes with mayor Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) - the boy's adoptive mother - who Henry insists is none other than the Evil Queen! (From ABC’s official synopsis)

Once Upon a Time: Season One
ABC’s Once Upon a Time is about as high concept as high concept shows come. It requires leaps and bounds in fairytale logic, features about five dozen major characters (I exaggerate), and moves between two separate timelines without doing much to prep the audience within the first few episodes. Less than a decade ago this approach would’ve been met with cries of confusion from audiences and critics, but the accelerating popularity of other modern fairytales like the Harry Potter series, the rise of ridiculously convoluted J.J. Abrams-brand television (I still can’t believe my mom watches Fringe), and, of course, the ever-increasing complexity of movie superhero mythologies, have opened a rift in the pop-culture mainstream for something like Once Upon a Time to exist, and even thrive. It comes as little surprise that series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis conceived the show while working on Lost.

For whatever reason, fairytale revisionism is especially popular right now. Following the modest success of made for television miniseries’ re-imaginations of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Disney Studios had massive success with a Tim Burton directed, action-slanted Alice in Wonderland, which led rival studios to release two competing Snow White projects – Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror and Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman. Other recent live-action theatrical revamps of fairytales and fables include Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, Daniel Barnz’ Beastly, Bryan Singer’s as yet unreleased Jack the Giant Killer, and Guillermo del Toro’s dark catch-all Pan’s Labyrinth. Once Upon a Time isn’t even the only weekly network series featuring revisionist fairytales – it runs into direct competition with NBC’s Grimm. Once Upon a Time and Grimm have more in common than mere subject matter, however. Back in 2002, Vertigo comics (an imprint of DC) released Fables, a monthly series about fairytale creatures and characters dealing with their forced exile into our world. Writer Bill Willingham used these familiar characters to tell addictive, adult-laced stories of sex, violence, espionage, horror, and romance for about two years until NBC began to develop his comics into a television series, originally planned to be released during the 2006-07 season. NBC’s Fables didn’t make it beyond the script stage and was then picked up by ABC, who began development in 2008. Not surprisingly, Disney also dropped Fables just in time to start production on Once Upon a Time. Eyebrows were raised all over the nerd-o-sphere, including my own, as I’m a bit of a Fables fanatic (perhaps minus Willingham’s not so subtle Zionistic subtext).

Once Upon a Time: Season One
This mindset, the one that suspects Horowitz and Kitsis ripped Willingham off and that Disney left him in the lurch to work with creators they’d already developed a profitable relationship with, led me to unfairly misjudge Once Upon a Time without seeing a frame of the series. The truth is that the two series obviously share a sandbox, but are largely more different than alike. The major element Once Upon a Time ‘borrows’ from Fables is the forceful removal of fairytales from their ‘homelands’ into ours, though in the Once Upon a Time mythology the majority of the fables are unaware of their true origins. There are plenty of relatively incidental similarities as well, such as the rare power of magic beans and gateways between the worlds. Funnily enough, the Evil Queen’s big plan to break into our world, where evil can actually win, is not taken from Willingham’s books, but Kevin Lima’s Enchanted, or possibly, more amusingly, John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero. I even have to respect Once Upon a Time’s creators for seeing the same thing Willingham did in these characters – ready-made back story. Well, that and a lack of copyright on the characters, which ABC-owned Disney has expertly taken advantage of for decades. The fact that we are familiar with these characters and the tropes that have followed them for centuries prior to Disney (in most cases) saves the writers a lot of time and lets them dive head-first into their intricate double-pronged plot. Occasionally, there’s a bit of an eye roll when another fairytale character is introduced in all too obvious a manner, but I’m not sure anyone has ever pulled off this kind of ‘hint, hint’ reveal without being a little goofy about it, not even Bill Willingham.

Once we’ve been given the chance to gather our opinions on the show’s basic concept, which takes some time, we’re free to pay more attention to the plot and characters. This is the problem with many of the recent wave of high concept, blockbuster television shows, like Lost, Heroes, and Fringe – it takes quite a bit of time to acclimate one’s self to the concept and that time can be better spent actually thinking about what is being done with the concept. In the case of Heroes, the quirk of the concept wore off about halfway through the first season, leaving many of us to realize how terrible, derivative, and generally uninteresting that show was. The problem that arrives early here is a sense that this series won’t be able to maintain itself beyond 22 episodes without some kind of major overhaul. After all, there has to be some kind of endgame, right? And there are only so many fairytale characters that can be added to the cast via standalone origin story, right? This is where the creators’ Lost credentials start to make me nervous, because that show had major problems arriving at an endgame and was never lacking for new, unnecessary characters.

Once Upon a Time: Season One
It takes a good six episodes for the story rhythms to set in and, at this point, it is pretty fun to connect the puzzle pieces as they are presented. There’s a strange tempo issue, however, as the writers appear to want both a forward-moving serialized show in the Lost tradition and a more episodic series that depends on characters over plots. However, the deeper we delve into the characters (who are continuously introduced and reintroduced), the more the writers begin to play with our expectations and memories of these stories, eventually blending alternate archetypes into each other. For example, Robert Carlyle’s dual characters are Rumplestiltskin, the traditional trickster, and Mr. Gold, a pawn shop owner with obvious ties to the traditional Rumplestiltskin. But, as the season persists, we also learn he has quite a bit in common with the Christian Devil, Goethe's Faust, and even The Beast of Beauty and the Beast fame (complete with a little chipped teacup Easter egg for Disney fans). These elaborations should probably confuse the already busy situation, but actually pull the audience further into the story and even solidifies Horowitz and Kitsis’ concept. The problem with the storytelling pattern is, as more standalone episodes begin to unravel, the heavy-handed, moral mumbo-jumbo starts to reel out as well and it doesn’t really work in the real-world part of the story. The writers spend so much energy tying together the Enchanted Forest and Storybrooke world aspects of each episode that they often lose any sense of differentiation in tone. The high melodrama and high-energy histrionics work very well in the fairytale world, but, back in the real world, too much of the conflict feels forced. The real world dialogue is also painfully cliché-ridden as a result.

Even without enjoying every second of the series, I do have to admire its massive scope and beautiful production design. Some of the effects work is a bit flimsy and some of the basic wardrobe and prop colours are, well, tacky, but there are at least signs of the creators attempting something visually unique. The thing that makes this design stand out is its mix and match blend of familiar elements, including Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (mostly in the creature/monster designs), Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (mostly in the fairytale sets), and any number of Disney versions of these various fairytales, specifically their brilliant, aforementioned, live-action pseudo-satire Enchanted (which tends to define the eclectic colour palette). I enjoy is the way the series isn’t afraid to change up their tone between episodes, at least once it finds its footing. The creators always maintain a generally family-friendly tone, but aren’t afraid to get a little scary or even a little silly. I could do with a little more variety overall, though something more like a straight comedy or straight horror episode (which Red Riding Hood’s origin episode almost counts as). Perhaps season two will fill that void.

Once Upon a Time: Season One

Video


Once Upon a Time is shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and comes to Blu-ray in 1080p, 1.78:1 video. The episodes are spread effectively over five discs to keep compression at a minimum. This is, for the most part, a very handsome series and one that changes things up several times within a single episode. There are obvious differences between the real world and the fairytale world, but those worlds are also divided up stylistically from setting to setting. This eclectic look makes for a particularly impressive mix of colours, contrasts, and sharpness levels. The base level look is pretty soft without blowing anything out. There’s enough overall contrast to revel in some close-up skin, clothing, and set textures, but the separation of elements largely depends more on general hue contrasts than sharp lines. Backgrounds are usually left out of focus, but there are a few instances of cameras exploring far off patterns without much bleeding (this does not bode too well for the digital set extensions). The diverse colour palette is the most impressive element. The predominant look is pretty warm, even gold-tinted, which gives the daylight sequences a nice glow without washing out the rich greens. Blue is usually saved for nighttime sequences, where it’s used to soften the blacks, which are otherwise used sparingly. Even during particularly dark sequences, shadows are often created through darker versions of the primary hues (there are exceptions, obviously). Most of the time, black, especially when set against white, represents some kind of evil. This is specifically utilized for the Evil Queen, whose fairy tale realm is sloshed in purples and smoke, while her real world homestead features almost exclusively black and white décor, highlighted with the pop of her omnipresent red apples. White levels are especially clean causing very little in the way of edge enhancement. Snow-caked landscapes are among the transfer’s most beautiful sequences. There is some basic noise in the more natural warm hues, but no blooming or blocking effects I notice.

Once Upon a Time: Season One

Audio


ABC Studios doesn’t put every one of their shows on Blu-ray (sorry Castle, Revenge, and Scandal), but, when they do, they roll out the red carpet with big, brassy, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. Ever since Lost, I’ve assumed the best from the studio’s Blu-ray TV output and this release is no disappointment. It’s not quite a ‘blow out the speakers’ reference-level mix, but there’s plenty to love and very little to complain about. The fairytale world is usually accompanied by all manner of bustling forest-related ambience, while the streets of Storybrooke feature a decent medley of chirping birds, roving cars, and chatting people. Audio standouts include a big witch showdown pitting flying metal against flying metal, endless collections of thundering horse hooves, the grinding gears of dwarfen mechanisms, an armada of buzzing fairy wings, and a whole lot of swooshy, wooshy magic.  The series score, credited to composer Mark Isham ( Blade, Crash, The Mist), is very theatrical, but tends to underline sequences in an intrusive fashion. When it’s not entirely forgettable, the music is usually maudlin, but, every once and a while, something truly majestic fires forth from the front speakers, and the music gives the LFE channel something to do, other than supporting horse hooves and the abstract bass of magical spells.

Once Upon a Time: Season One

Extras


Extras begin with audio commentaries spread over the five discs in the collection. Disc one features commentary on ‘Pilot’ with co-creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. Disc two features commentary on ‘7:15 A.M.’ with actors Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas. Disc three features commentary on ‘Skin Deep’ with actor Robert Carlyle and writer Jane Espenson. Disc four features commentary on ‘The Stable Boy’ with Kitsis and Horowitz and actress Lana Parrilla. Disc five features commentary on ‘A Land without Magic’ with Kitsis and Horowitz, and actress Jennifer Morrison.

Disc one also features Once Upon a Time Orchestral Suite (4:10), a selection of Isham’s music set against the main title still, but the bulk of extras appear on disc five. These begin with the Blu-ray exclusive Once Upon a Time: Origins, an interactive look at the origins of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Rumpelstiltskin, all in HD and narrated by actor Josh Dallas. These include stylish period illustrations and, despite brief runtimes, actually cover plenty of historical information most viewers will not have known.

Once Upon a Time: Season One
Fairy Tales in the Modern World (20:30, HD) is about the show’s inspirations, adaptation practices, and general production, all with a very Disney slant. It includes interviews with Kitsis and Horowitz, co-producer David H. Goodman, consulting producer/writer Jane Espenson, and actors Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Eion Baily, Beverly Elliot, Robert Carlyle, Meghan Ory, Jared Gilmore, Lana Parrilla, Lee Arenberg, Raphael Sbarge, and Jennifer Morrison, along with behind the scenes footage, and footage from Disney animation classics. Building Character (7:20, HD) continues the themes of the previous featurette with greater focus on the development of the show’s version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, complete with footage of the creators meeting with actress Emilie de Ravin, costume designer Eduardo Castro describing the character’s outfit, and general behind the scenes during the episode in question. Welcome to Storybrooke (6:50, HD) takes a look at the village of Steveson, British Colombia, which doubles as Storybrooke for the series, complete with interviews with the locals. The extras end with The Story I Remember…Snow White (4:30, HD), which briefly features members of the cast recalling the story to the best of their memory, bloopers (2:20, HD), nine deleted/extended/alternate scenes (12:50, HD), and trailers for other ABC shows.

Once Upon a Time: Season One

Overall


Once Upon a Time takes some time to get going, but, once it finds its footing, it’s a very entertaining new series and I look forward to the upcoming second season, which will hopefully clean up some of the plot and dialogue issues. I say all of these generally positive things as a big fan of the Fables Vertigo comic series and as someone who assumed ABC and Disney were just ripping off writer Bill Willingham’s concept. Hopefully this means something to the other suspicious Fables fans out there. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds spectacular enough to make me bemoan the fact that ABC isn’t putting more of their shows (however mediocre they may be) out on the HD format. The extras aren’t extensive, but cover most of the bases.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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