After two successful seasons, albeit of varied quality, and a very strong currently running third one, it was time for ABC’s Once Upon a Time to get the spinoff treatment. The result, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, had a lot of potential with a new heroine, a new story and more than a few worlds to explore, combined with the twists and retellings we’ve come to expect from Once Upon. On the other hand, however, it had to live up to the quality of storytelling of its parent series.
Sadly, that’s not the case and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (or simply Wonderland for the rest of this review) fails to reach new heights in storytelling, acting and even visuals.
I decided to give Wonderland a 3-5 episode chance. The reason for the extra 2 episodes was considering how its Parent Series took a few episodes to really get me hooked. I’ve seen 3 already and my impressions have worsened with each.
The setting for the opening scenes and maybe half of the first episode is by far the most interesting one we’ve seen in the entire Once Upon franchise; a world seemingly stuck in Victorian England, where Alice lives and is locked up after her last trip to Wonderland, during which she met a Genie, Cyrus, from Agrabah, fell in love with him and subsequently lost him, presumed dead. On her return, her father had her committed to the asylum. The opening scenes are heavy in exposition, but thankfully, once they’re done giving you the cliff-note backstory (as they need more of it to fill later episodes, since it wouldn’t be Once Upon without flashbacks), the story starts to move forward, with the White Rabbit, the only masterfully done and believable CGI character in the series, coming to our world, in the modern era to recruit The Knave of Hearts to rescue Alice. The escape adds a wonderful bit of momentum the episode seriously needed and I thought for a moment they’d keep it going, but instead, the moment they arrive in Wonderland, they engaged the emergency breaks and the rhythm of the story slows down to a crawl once more, and hasn’t sped up since.
Visually speaking, Wonderland is vastly inferior to Once Upon, especially in regards to special effects, which are worse than Once Upon’s already questionable ones. While they are sparingly used in the parent series, it’s easier to count the scenes in Wonderland without CGI than the other way around. The entire environment, the scenery, weather and most creatures are all CGI, and cheap ones at that. As I’ve mentioned, the White Rabbit is the exception of the rule, and I wonder if they blew the budget with him. The result breaks the suspension of disbelief (or as I call it, the BTT: Bullshit Tolerance Threshold) you need for such a fantastic world to be convincing and engrossing; because only through deep hypnosis and suggestion could you believe the environments to be anything but ghastly computer effects. The worst offenders are the road they seem to walk on in every episode so far (the Yellow Brick Road apparently), Jaffar’s (yes, he’s here) dungeon, the Cheshire Cat (which is a grievous offense in my book) and most recently, the Caterpillar and the Bandersnatch.
But, as is often the case, you can forgive bad special effects if the acting’s strong enough and there’s a good story moving you forward. But even in these, the series fails to meet expectations.
The story itself is a mix between Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin, with both protagonists merged into Alice, which isn’t surprising as we’ve seen many characters take on multiple “roles” in the Once Upon franchise, like Rumpelstiltskin, who is not only the wish-granter but also Beast and Peter Pan’s Crocodile. The Knave of Hearts is both this classic Alice in Wonderland character and Will Scarlet of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men.
The villains, on the other hand aren’t mixed together but instead they’re collaborators, with The Red Queen and Jaffar working together to get their hands on the Genie’s wishes (since they already had him locked up in a cage), though I see the eventual double cross coming from a mile away. As usual there’s a complication, and in this case is the Genie, Cyrus, gave Alice three wishes in the form of rubies, and until she’s used them, the Genie ownership won’t pass to them, even having the bottle. It’s a nice setup but it does render our villains slightly disappointing, as their only purpose seems to be coming up with plots to force Alice to spend her wishes, only to be foiled by the “party”.
The episodes themselves move in a crawl, no momentum whatsoever and with entire scenes consisting of simply walking through the ghastly rendered background. The flashbacks, which in Once Upon served to spark your interest in the characters, now only make everything more tedious, especially those involving Alice and Cyrus, but that has more to do with the acting than the writing, which by the way is also vastly inferior to the parent show, with some conversations and plots being rather forced, and somehow managing to lose or confuse their own continuity within the same scene, such as the Caterpillar’s scene in Episode 3, where he speaks of Alice as if she was only a pretty girl and simply the Knave’s “companion” or something he’d be willing to trade, but then 30 seconds later commenting on how Alice has retained her keen sense of observation. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it caught my attention when I saw it and not in the best way possible.
A week or so ago, in a twitter conversation with the beautiful V from the Verbal Spew Review, I mentioned what I still think is the show’s greatest flaw, and that is the quality of the actors in it. There’s a definite imbalance between the male leads and the female ones, with Will and Jaffar portrayed by fantastic actors Michael Socha (Being Human UK) and Naveen Andrews (English Patient, Lost) respectively, who manage to do one of the hardest things with such outlandish characters; making them real. Michael’s Will is both cynical and endearing, both a rogue and a protector, and is the straight man of the good guy duo, his down to earth attitude in the face of Wonderland’s oddities adding a bit of normality to the otherwise alien world. Naveen is simply a joy to see as an evil character because he gives the impression he’s enjoying himself. He’s also convincingly threatening. John Lithgow portrays a very good White Rabbit, though I hope they develop the character a bit more.
The problem in the series lies with its two female leads, as both are terrible actresses compared to their male counterparts and have no chemistry whatsoever with them. Sophie Lowe, who plays Alice, can’t show any convincing emotion, making all scenes hinge on Socha’s performance. The Red Queen is a similar case with Jaffar, with her seduction attempts falling flat, both in plot, as Jaffar sees past them, but also in real life. Emma Rigby is beautiful enough but her attempts at sex appeal are half-hearted at best. Her villainy is also extremely unconvincing, never reaching Jaffar’s level or even coming close to Once Upon’s Regina or Cora, the go-to models for the franchise’s Evil Queens.
For no reason whatsoever can I recommend you to watch this series. It has too many flaws in both writing and execution. The rescue the Genie in distress plot, while interesting as a concept, fails to be engrossing enough, partly due to the bad acting on both Alice and Cyrus’ parts. It’s clear from the flashback scenes that these two “lovers” have no chemistry at all, and their romance is dull and extremely forced, and because of it, you aren’t convinced the quest is worthwhile. Wonderland itself is just a mix of locations connected by long, badly rendered paths through horribly made trees, and except for those locales, seems rather empty and/or lifeless. The colorful Wonderland characters have been dumbed down a notch, instead of making them even bigger and more grandiose, in a clear example of playing things safe blowing up in the producers’ face; and I don’t mean literally bigger, since that was one of the issues with Cheshire.
The Mental Attic Score: There are better ways to waste an hour. The only reason I’d consider watching this show for a few more episodes is to see the Rabbit’s wife, voiced by the awesome Whoopi Goldberg.