Who: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” aired on network TV, specifically on ABC, fall and spring Thursdays, this season, at 8:00 PM.
What: “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” a spin-off, of sorts, of flagship series “Once Upon a Time.” This fantasy series focuses on Alice, of Wonderland fame, and the love story between her and Cyrus, who seems to be the genie from Aladdin. So far, none of the characters previously appeared in Once Upon a Time.
Alice (Sophie Lowe) returned from her initial adventure in Wonderland having been gone “a long time” in the real world. Though she tries to explain to her father where she has been, her father, predictably, does not believe her and thinks Alice is making the whole story up. To prove that she is being honest, she somehow finds her way back to Wonderland as a teenager with the hopes of snaring the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), so she can show her father that talking animals do exist. On her return trip, however, she meets Cyrus, a genie in a bottle, while on the run from the Red Queen’s card guards. The two instantly fall in love; Alice frees the Genie from his bottle somehow, and they gallivant across the realms, until the Red Queen catches up with them and throws Cyrus over a cliff and seemingly into the Boiling Seas. Believing her true love to be deceased, Alice finds her way back to the real world, only to be incarcerated in an asylum, as doctors attempt to convince her that she has been a lying little minx the whole time and offer to perform some kind of lobotomy-looking operation to extract that silly imagination of hers once and for all. Luckily, the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit have heard (through well planted information) that Cyrus is alive; they spring Alice from the joint and portal her on over to Wonderland, promising to ally with her and search for the missing genie. Unfortunately, the White Rabbit is coerced into working for the Red Queen, who is, in turn, working for none other than Jafar (Naveen Andrews, Lost), the evil sorcerer from Aladdin. Jafar is after the genie and the wishes he grants; the Red Queen sees fit to stop Alice in her tracks once and for all; and all the poor girl wants is to be reunited with her one and only true love.
When: The series finale aired on ABC, Thursday, April 3, 2014, at 8:00 PM.
Where: The show is set in a fictionalized universe at an unidentified time. Though Alice herself appears to hail from London, she also wears a corset. Yet, Wonderland, like some of the other storybook settings such as Never Land, is a separate world from the Real World and from other storybook places, and most of the action transpires there.
Why: Once Upon a Time is one of my favorite shows, currently and quite possibly of all time. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is one of my favorite books. It seemed like a no-brainer, really.
How – as in How’s It Going? (Thoughts)
As the primary TV viewing season rounds to a close and as new season schedules are announced by the networks, they have been making sweeping and swift final decisions regarding what stays and what goes, i.e. what is renewed for another season and what is canceled. Because the purpose of this blog is to be more editorial about particular shows this viewer watches rather than a major entertainment news outlet to report scoops, spoilers, and other television-related sound bytes (for now), this blogger will report the cancellations and reviews as I have time to write about them.
ABC, approximately two weeks ago, canceled Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, among others, though the writing was on the wall for this limited-run, spin-off series from almost the beginning. This viewer rated the pilot of this program 3.5 stars, meaning that the show was generally entertaining, though this viewer saw several actual flaws in execution and/or pitfalls in the premise. The review of the pilot can be read here.
What began as a rocky start for Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (OUAT:W for short) actually ended up being a fairly interesting run with a cute, satisfying conclusion, even though some of the the show’s larger problems plagued it from premiere to finale. What can be said for certain is that this spin-off experiment was not as successful as the flagship series that gave birth to it, either in ratings or in sheer entertainment value, which this viewer believes has more to do with the writing and arrangement of the story than anything else. Even the worst of the CGI was abandoned by the end of the series and was reserved only for certain characters or events, rendering it much more effective than in the pilot and first couple of episodes. The real faults of this show, however, were the motivation for Jafar’s magical pursuits, which was tantamount to the world’s worst daddy issues, and waiting to reveal the Queen of Hearts’ back story because, as it turns out, Alice and Cyrus’ “twue wuv” was not nearly as compelling as the “twue wuv” between the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha), formerly known as Will Scarlett of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and the Queen of Hearts (Emma Rigby), formerly known as Anastasia.
The Series Recap
Of course, Cyrus (Peter Gadiot) is alive, having been saved from extinction at the hands of the Queen and retained as captive by Jafar, along with a mysterious old man who turned out to be the former sultan of Agrabbah. For the viewer learns early that Jafar was an illegitimate son of the sultan, and though Jafar yearned for his father’s love, the sultan was unwilling to award such love of its own accord. The sultan (Brian George) is kind of a jerk, preferring to drown his young son in his wash basin rather than acknowledge his existence and writing it off as Jafar’s responsibility to “earn his love,” which lent some sympathy for Jafar’s character flaws. Yet, Jafar’s quest for revenge ultimately rang a little silly. He wanted to change the “rules of magic:” 1) magic cannot be used to bring someone back from the dead; 2) magic cannot be used to force someone to fall in love; and 3) magic cannot be used to change the past (viewers might recall Disney’s Aladdin genie, voiced by Robin Williams, explaining these three rules in the 1993 film). By the finale, Jafar reveals that he wants to make his father love him only to murder him, to feel the pang of betrayal at the hands of one he loves as Jafar did when the sultan ordered his death so many years ago, when Jafar was the young boy who loved his father unconditionally and wanted his father to reciprocate that love with equal measure and without caveat.
So, in order to enact this plan, Jafar comes to the home of Amara (Zuleika Robinson, Lost), a mother of Agrabbah who lost her sons and who chose to learn the ways of magic to bring them back to her. Jafar is a natural at learning magic, but his thirst for revenge consumes him and becomes a thirst for unadulterated power. He eventually betrays Amara, turning the powerful sorceress into the snake staff that accompanied him wherever he went. What is revealed later, however, is that Amara is the mother of Cyrus. She once was dying; in order that loyal son Cyrus and his brothers might save her, they traveled to the Well of Wishes, a secret magical spring accessible only by traversing through red doors locked by riddle. When Cyrus went to retrieve some of the magical waters, the Well Spirit warned him that he was not granted use of the waters, as he could not change the fates. When Cyrus took the water anyway, he and his brothers were able to save their mother but at a steep cost. The Well Spirit appeared in Agrabbah and forced the three brothers to “serve others” as genies, trapped inside bottles and doomed to grant wishes for eternity in penance for taking what was not given to them.
Jafar did not appear to know of the family connection, but he sought out the three genies, as he believed the wishes they possessed would aid him in casting a spell that would change the laws of magic for him and would enable him to break the three forbidden rules. How he ended up in Wonderland and how Cyrus’ bottle ended up in Wonderland, this viewer is still not sure. Jafar was able to make quick work of finding Cyrus’ brothers’ bottles, though, which he has on hand from the series beginning, and the first half of the series is spent in Jafar’s pursuit of the third. He does so by allying with the Queen of Hearts, who was taught magic by none other than Cora (Barbara Hershey), the mother of Evil Queen Regina and Wicked Witch Zelena from the original Once Upon a Time. The Red Queen also managed to marry the benevolent King of Hearts, only to covet his power and enjoy her rule and riches in the end, mainly by the seductive advice of her adopted mother-figure and tutor, Cora, who saw something of herself in the young Red Queen.
It seems the Queen was once Anastasia, a destitute peasant girl from ye Merry Olde England, or perhaps ye Merry Olde Enchanted Forest, and she was in love with master thief Will Scarlett, who was really earning a name for himself in Robin Hood’s band. Somehow, however, Anastasia discovered a way to open a portal, and Will, so in love with the sprightly Anastasia was he, that he agreed to jump into the portal with his love to begin a new life together. Thereafter, they found themselves in Wonderland, just as poor as they were in Sherwood Forest. Will was still an expert thief, and they managed to steal a fine booty from time to time, which they squirreled away into their caravan hidden deep in the woods, but Anastasia, once she and Will conned their way into a royal ball, caught the eye of the King. This girl then saw a chance to abandon being hungry and living a life of thievery and destitution; she forsook Will and agreed to marry the King, who granted her riches, power, and the chance to learn magic later in life (though the King, we learn later, frowned upon magic). Will was truly heartbroken, and when he encountered Cora, after Anastasia listened to the wily witch’s seductive claims about the power of magic (Cora smarting from her own disappointment at Regina), he begged her to remove his heart. She warned him about the perils of living without a heart; she spoke from personal experience, after all. Yet, he insisted, and once she handed him the glowing, beating thing, he stored it away and chose to care about nothing. That is, until he encountered Alice.
Alice’s times in Wonderland were happy, but her returns from this special realm were not. As a child, she met the White Rabbit and battled the Queen and the Jabberwocky and lived to tell the tale, but when she did so to her father, he did not believe her, choosing instead to relegate the entire experience to flights of his willful daughter’s imagination. During Alice’s second visit to Wonderland – which she undertook to find proof of talking animals and fanciful places like Wonderland, so that her dad would finally believe her – while fleeing from the Queen’s guards, she happened to find Cyrus’ genie bottle, and with it, Cyrus, in the Queen’s rose garden. Love at first sight bloomed, and Alice and Cyrus’ love transcended the ages and became the stuff of fairy tales and legends, unstoppable, even by death – Westley from The Princess Bride would be proud. When Alice returned home, however, having been gone a long time, traveling the realms, embarking upon great adventures and seeings of sights, and enjoying Cyrus’ company until the Red Queen seemingly throws him off a cliff into the Boiling Seas, her father can’t believe it’s really her. What’s more, he’s remarried and has had another child, a half sister for Alice. Her stepmother is by the book and not prone to nonsense and flights of imagination, and Alice’s return upsets the somewhat rigid balance in the home, particularly since her father had grieved her disappearance as her death. In addition, her stepmother convinces her father that Alice might be somewhat insane, as she has been filling her sister’s head with stories about visiting a magical land with talking white rabbits and a genie with whom she fell in love.
As a result, Alice is sent to an institution by her father in a betrayal that follows her for a long time. That is, until the White Rabbit and Will bust her out in service to the Red Queen, who is in service to Jafar, as Alice holds the three wishes given to her by Cyrus, per the rules of his discovery as genie. She never made these wishes, saving them for when she finds her love again, believing him wholeheartedly, by the will of their love, to be alive; she plans to use one of the wishes to free Cyrus from his bottle. Yet, as long she holds the wishes, Cyrus and his bottle belong to her, which means Jafar cannot appropriate Cyrus or his wishes for his spell. Of course, Queen Anastasia is interested in this alliance only insofar as Alice has been a nuisance to her, reeking havoc as a child in Wonderland and turning all of her subjects against her, though she really did that herself, with her quickness to remove heads and use magic to enact her whims, such as by turning subjects to stone.
So, in the first half of the series, Jafar uses the Red Queen to find Alice, who, in turn with the help of her apparent friends Will and the White Rabbit, seeks her genie, who, in turn, is being held by Jafar. Jafar wants Alice to use her three wishes, the Red Queen wants Alice to die, the White Rabbit is working for the Red Queen because she has threatened his wife and children, and Will is helping the Red Queen because he doesn’t care about anything without his heart, and Anastasia holds it, meaning she has control of him, until Alice manages to take possession of the heart in one of her gambits against the Queen. Then, he follows everything Alice says and becomes her staunchest ally.
Yet, Red Queen Anastasia ultimately realizes she loves Will, and that she made a mistake, electing the emptiness of power and wealth over their own fairy tale love. Will manages to take hold of the genie after Alice is forced to use her three wishes, but with his last wish, he ends up turning himself into a genie by wishing for Cyrus’ freedom. After Will’s young friend Lizard has a go with Genie Will first and confesses her tragic crush on him, Jafar finds both and murders the poor girl, stealing away the bottle for himself.
In one of the episodes, Jafar attempts to catch Alice off guard by kidnapping her father from England. In this episode, Alice and her father reach a new level of understanding, since he has no choice but to believe Alice’s tales of Wonderland now. He even meets the talking White Rabbit. Alice saves her father through a leap of faith, and his apologies are profuse and profound, as he professes his love for her.
In the second half of the series, Jafar unleashes the Jabberwocky, who, in this version of the tale, is a flexible lady-monster with the capability to read fears and turn them against people Jafar does so in the hopes of ensnaring Anastasia and Alice. In the meantime, Cyrus, with the help of a compass given to him by the Caterpillar (voiced by Iggy Pop), resolves to find his mother and brothers. The compass shows the location of what one’s heart desires most – it’s very much like the compass in Pirates of the Caribbean, but, hey, that’s a Disney property too. In a battle with Jafar, Alice and Cyrus manage to disarm Jafar of his staff and discover that the staff is Amara.
In the meantime, Anastasia returns to her castle with the hopes of saving Will, now in Jafar’s hands. The plan is foiled, however, as Jafar sics the Jabberwocky on her, and her true fears are revealed. In addition, Jafar has found Will’s heart and shoves it back into his chest. In a climactic scene in which the Jabberwocky reveals Anastasia’s true fears, in which she believes that Will could never return the love she has for him with all that she has done, and Will’s undying love for her despite all of her misdeeds, Jafar ultimately kills Anastasia in Will’s presence. It seems his revenge is complete.
Yet, Alice and Cyrus cannot be counted out. They manage to free Amara from the staff and also return to the castle with the aim of freeing Cyrus’ brothers, but Jafar finds the heroes first. He zaps Cyrus and poses an ultimatum to Amara: help him change the laws of magic, or watch her children and Alice die.
The Series Finale
Amara, a practical woman, agrees to help with the spell, which ultimately grants her the same strength of sorcery that it does Jafar. He achieves his wish of ultimate power. First, he forces his deadbeat dad to love him. Then, he magically drowns him. Next, he revives Anastasia and forces her to love him, which he dangles in front of the destitute Will, who is still trapped by the curse of being a genie. In the meantime, Amara saves her son with her now potent sorcery, and Alice and Cyrus run toward the Well of Wishes with Amara, with the plan of returning the water that Cyrus stole, except that they learn from the White Rabbit that Jafar has amassed an army of what are ultimately zombies with the intention of destroying Alice. Alice, with the help of the Rabbit and his wife (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), amass a second army of rabbits and Wonderland residents, and Alice offers them a rousing speech about fighting for the ones they love and for Wonderland, now threatened by a powerful Jafar. The battle, unfortunately, results in Alice’s capture.
Jafar threatens Alice, as he wants the return of Amara. He blusters that he will break the third rule of magic and change the past, so that Alice would never have met Cyrus, but Alice doesn’t budge, opining again that her and Cyrus’ true love is real and stronger than any magic. She also reminds Jafar that he will never experience genuine love, and that those he forced to love him by magic, such as Anastasia, are living a lie. When soldiers in Jafar’s army reveal Cyrus and Amara’s location, Jafar is off to confront them at the Well of Wishes.
Amara freely gives her life back to the Well Spirit, pleading with Cyrus to let her go. He agrees, recognizing his mistake from so many years ago. Amara disappears as water, just as Jafar appears. He puzzles as to the riddle behind the Well and magically draws the puddle of water from Cyrus’ hands that was once his mother. Alice appears, then, having been released by Anastasia, who was drawn to Will by a play of words and the seduction of true love. One kiss from true love Will, and she remembers who she is and how much she does not actually love Jafar. She unties Alice in time for Alice to appear at the Well of Wishes, though Alice realizes that Jafar, who makes the water in his hands disappear, has spearheaded his own undoing. The Well Spirit chastises Jafar for taking that which was not given and bestows him with the curse of the genie. He is encased in his own bottle, which undoes all of his magic.
Cyrus’ brothers are free, but Anastasia dies once more. The Well Spirit, however, in an act of benevolence, gives Cyrus water to revive her, suggesting that fate has taken the life of the Red Queen but not of Anastasia. Wonderland is saved, and so are the relationships of Alice and Cyrus and Will and Anastasia. Alice and Cyrus marry and remain in England; Will and Anastasia marry and return to Wonderland as its rulers. Alice’s father is pleased at her happiness, and the whole family seems okay with the White Rabbit officiating the wedding. Alice and Will share a loving goodbye as the best friends they are, and, some years later, Alice tells her tales of Wonderland to her and Cyrus’ daughter, as they have a tea party in an English garden.
In the end…
The writers crafted a fun story with a few twists on the tales of Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin. The genius of the limited-run concept behind this series signifies that the thirteen episodes produced and aired were self contained. There was an option for renewal, if the series was successful, but without renewal, the series stood on its own. To that end, it’s worth the watch, should it crop up on streaming services in the future, as there is a beginning, middle, and satisfying end to this story.
Yet, OUAT:W was still a flawed vehicle. Sophie Lowe and Peter Gadiot, as well as Michael Socha, offered generally winning if marginally adequate performances as their respective characters, as did Emma Rigby, once she relaxed her overly regal Queen of Hearts persona; Alice and Anastasia were delightfully earnest if ultimately one-dimensional; the genie was charming if flat; and Will Scarlett was cheeky and charming if somewhat unconvincing until he watched his love die. Naveen Andrews still meandered around a slightly less than menacing Jafar, a villain who could not be taken too seriously, particularly in lieu of his wounded, jilted son scenes. Though he is still a handsome man, his performance was a mixed bag, waffling between taking itself too seriously and something extraordinarily cartoon-like, even painfully tongue-in-cheek at times, whether by his choice or by instruction of the episode directors. The scariest of all the villains was, in fact, the Jabberwocky, given that the actress behind the performance expertly played the mystery of her character and combined it with a sinister edge that rendered her character entirely unpredictable and disturbing.
It still bothers this viewer that Agrabbah and Wonderland intermingled at all. I still have no idea why or, perhaps, do not remember clearly (even despite the fact that so much else was memorable) how Jafar and/or Genie Cyrus even ended up in Wonderland to begin with; this is a minor gripe, but this piece of the story should have been spelled out better or in a more memorable fashion, since the existence of these two characters in a show about Wonderland is the impetus for the entire story.
What’s more, since Alice and Cyrus were reunited mid-series, the episodes establishing Will and Anastasia’s relationship as well as Will and Alice’s friendship might have serviced the show and its ratings better if they were introduced earlier in the season. In the end, despite the fact the Queen of Hearts/Red Queen was ultimately a caricature, an illusion put on by a woman who was trying to be something that she was not, the woman who became her was a flawed individual with whom another flawed individual was very much in love. That story was more interesting, more compelling, and more sympathetic, in the end, than Alice’s quest to find Cyrus; knowing the genie was alive so early also meant that their fate/destiny was entirely predictable, even formulaic and heavily derivative of The Princess Bride. Alice’s friendship with Will was more compelling, even, than Alice’s love for her genie. Perhaps, the organization of the story as it aired helped to bolster sympathy and compelling qualities for Alice and Will’s relationship as well as Will and Anastasia’s relationship; yet, the show was at its most interesting when threats to these dynamics emerged, which didn’t occur until after the Red Queen’s back story was revealed halfway into the series.
Ultimately, the series accomplished what the writers/producers no doubt set out to do with it, but the execution was messy and not as titillating or as effective as the original Once Upon a Time (which can be messy in its own right). This viewer is still glad that ABC and the Once creators tried this experiment, though exploring new realms might better be saved for the flagship series in the end – though that’s another topic of lengthy discussion for another entry.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is an entertaining enough show to appease fans of the original Once Upon a Time, and I would recommend watching it if it appeared on a service like Netflix because it is self-contained and ends in a satisfying, even precious way. This viewer was correct in surmising it unlikely that a wider audience would find this show of its own accord, and given the shaky execution of the spin-off, in the end, even several core Once fans probably drifted away. Thus, OUAT:W can be summarized as good idea and good effort but not good enough to warrant renewal.
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:
Canceled! The entire series, produced to the tune of thirteen episodes, aired fully and ended in April 2014. Yet, as noted above, it is self-contained, as it was designed to be a limited-run with an option to renew that was not exercised. Thus, if it appeals to you, gentle viewer, it is worth the watch, since the whole story is told within those thirteen episodes.