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Intersection of Life and Faith

Once Upon a Time Less than Enchanting

  • Gary D. Robinson TheFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2011 31 Oct
<i>Once Upon a Time</i> Less than Enchanting

Once upon a time, in a place called--well, I'm not sure what they called it; we'll call it Storybook Land--an evil queen placed a spell upon a young woman named Snow White. 

Snow fell asleep, lying as white and still as her wintry namesake.  When all seemed lost, however, Prince Charming appeared.  He placed a gentle kiss upon her lips and, behold, Snow White awakened!  And, of course, they lived happily ever after.

So much for storybooks. On television, "happily" doesn't exist, just "ever after."  That was pretty much how I felt about ABC's foray into these enchanted forests. The series is called Once Upon a Time. Instead of being drawn into a timeless realm, however, I kept looking at the clock.  On the other hand, it's possible the series could succeed on the strength of its themes.

We'll get to the critique down the page. Meanwhile, here's what it's about: Determined to destroy Snow and her prince's happiness, the Evil Queen casts a spell which transports not only the couple but the whole population of fairy tale characters to a "horrible place," our world. 

So obsessed is EQ with punishing Snow, she's willing to undergo the same amnesia the rest experience. Although each character assumes an identity analogous to his story book life (e.g., Jiminy Cricket's a counselor, Snow's a teacher of people shorter than she, Evil Queen is now Evil Mayor), nobody remembers the past.

Nobody remembers, that is, except for a young boy, Snow White's grandchild. Thanks to the foresight and ingenuity of the prince's pals, Snow's newborn daughter was placed in a magic wardrobe which whisked her to our world. Bounced from foster home to foster home, the teen-aged Emma Swan got pregnant out of wedlock and gave up her baby for adoption.

Ten years later, her child, Henry, comes looking for her. His teacher has given him a book of fairy tales in which he has discovered the truth. Lucky for Henry that beneath Emma's cynical shell beats the heart of a hero. Indeed, she is destined to rescue the entire population of Storybrooke, Maine, and restore them to their rightful story. First, however, she must save Henry from the clutches of his adoptive mother, the Mayor.

Once Upon a Time borrows not only from the classic fairy tales but from science fiction, ala parallel worlds. The magic wardrobe idea was swiped from C.S. Lewis. Oh, and let's not forget the parallel with Superman's origins—the child saved from imminent death in one world to become the savior in another. I'll say this for the show: what it lacks in imagination, it more than makes up for in derivation.

Once has all the elements of a winning tale—a reluctant savior battles a ruthless villain amid a host of archetypes. But somehow, the tale gets lost in translation—specifically to series television. The dialogue is flat. There's little suspense and no humor. Instead, we're served big helpings of irony, e.g., "Storybrooke," the mayor's fascination with a mirror, the basket of red apples on her coffee table (in one startling scene, Emma takes a chainsaw to the mayor's prize apple tree).

The characters aren't particularly memorable or likeable. That may change down the road. For now, however, everything is taken so seriously, the themes more pounded than played. A couple of times I was reminded of those old After School specials which taught an Important Lesson.

For example, the second episode seemed to have settled on Power as its theme. Flashbacks reveal the horrible deed the queen was willing to do to achieve her end and cast her spell. In her quest for power, she destroyed the thing she loved most. I counted at least three lines of dialogue about power: It's destructive. It's seductive. It comes with a price. I expected somebody to say, "With great power comes great responsibility," but somehow that didn't make the list. One important rule for writers is "Don't tell; show."  It's a rule these people seem to have forgotten.

The acting is competent, if not nuanced. Jennifer Morrison makes a believably hesitant hero. Ginnifer Goodwin, as Snow White/Mary Margaret Blanchard, is the very portrait of woman pining for she knows not what. Lana Parrilla plays a class-A meanie. For now at least, all seem to be playing more archetypes than characters.

The story shouldn't be stretched out over 22 episodes, or even half that. A movie would do it much better, or a mini-series. If it remains on the air, I predict a long, convoluted mishmash of fairyland flashbacks alternating with "real-world" dilemmas. The last thing a fairy tale should be, even a modern retelling of a fairy tale, is long and overly-plotted. Look what Smallville did to the Superman legend. I fear the same treatment here.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, despite my negative feelings, I must admit to the magnetic pull of the themes in Once Upon a Time.  The series format inflates but its themes resonate, and not just with me, I'm sure:  good versus evil, child yearning for parent and vice versa, a feeling of displacement, a hole in our lives we desperately want to fill, the need for a savior.

A friend of mine likes to say there's just one story. Fairy tales like Snow White, movies like The Princess Bride, classic tales like Les Miserables--these are stories in which the most terrible things happen: trickery and betrayal, trial and temptation, darkness, death, and despair. But, in the end, the sun always shines through. Even the dead come back to life. All these are but variations of the One Story.   They're vague, blurry reflections of something that became reality in Jesus Christ.

I believe there's One Story—and we're all in it.  To the extent that Once Upon a Time opens our eyes to that great truth, regardless of its shortcomings, it serves a valuable purpose.

*This review first published 11/1/2011

**Watch Once Upon A Time Sundays on ABC 

Gary D. Robinson is a preacher, writer, and actor living in Xenia, Ohio.  He blogs at www.garydrobinson.com