Thursdays at 8pm on ABC (U.S.) and City TV (Canada)
Once upon a time there was a little British girl named Alice who had wondrous adventures with white rabbits, giant caterpillars and talking cats in a magical world called Wonderland. That part we already know.
But this story begins when an enthusiastic Alice returns home to her family…and is dismayed that nobody believes her amazing stories. They all think she’s either telling tall tales or going batty. Alice is determined to prove them wrong, which leads her back to Wonderland as a young woman. She’s searching for physical evidence to present to her father, but Alice finds more than she ever imagined when she meets a chivalrous, handsome genie-in-a-bottle named Cyrus who sweeps her off her feet. She rubs him the right way and they set off on a romantic adventure, pledging their hearts and their futures to each other. But their lifetime of happiness is cut short when Cyrus is felled by the evil Queen of Hearts and tossed into a boiling sea. Oh dear.
Now Alice is back in England, shackled in a mental institution, desolate and heartbroken. She no longer cares if anyone thinks she’s crazy. She’s given up on life. In fact she’s ready to let the doctors perform a risky procedure to ‘take the pain away’. She’s willing to forget Wonderland and Cyrus if it will make her hurt less. It’s in this bleak moment that her magical past reappears when the knave of hearts and the infamous white rabbit show up to bust her out of the loony bin and take her back to Wonderland where Cyrus may still be alive!
Once Upon A Time in Wonderland (whew…what a mouthful!) is a spin-off of ABC’s hit series Once Upon A Time, which blends classic fairytales with modern day stories. OUAT uses multiple timelines and non-sequential flashbacks to weave its tales and if this pilot is any indicator, Wonderland (yeah, that’s what I’m calling it) will do the same. The main plot is the progress of Alice and her two sidekicks as they journey through Wonderland looking for her lost love. The knave is a little bit dodgy and rough around the edges, but probably a big softie at the core. He’s got a criminal reputation in Wonderland that he’s not keen to re-visit. But he’s agreed to stick it out if Alice gives him one of the three wishes she’s keeping in her shoe (yes, you read that right). The time-obsessed White Rabbit is less than trustworthy. He’s indebted to the Queen somehow and he lured Alice back to Wonderland on her direct orders. Now he’s reporting back with her every move while she searches for Cyrus. At the same time, it looks like the story will delve into Alice’s past adventures in Wonderland, fleshing out her romance with Cyrus and their time together before his faux death.
-The casting of Alice is perfect. Relative newcomer Sophie Lowe is a delicate beauty with fire burning behind her eyes. She’s the perfect mix of strong and sweet. I love how she still looks like a wide-eyed little girl, and yet like every good modern heroine, she can kick a little ass when she needs to.
-Even though we only got a small taste, I’m already loving the chemistry between Alice and Cyrus. They just sparked on screen together. Their initial interaction was both chaste and sensuous at the same time and there was something deliciously old fashioned about their connection. They actually felt like fairy tale sweethearts. “You know, when you really love someone, you don’t need proof. You can feel it”. Handled badly their scenes could have made me gag, but I was so charmed that I think I actually sighed audibly!
-The Knave is an intriguing sidekick already. He’s morally conflicted yet begrudgingly chivalrous, rescuing Alice from the jaws of the ravenous Cheshire cat. His back and forth banter with our heroine will up the comedy factor, which is always a good thing in a fantastical series that can’t afford to take itself seriously.
-How could they have screwed up so badly with their depiction of the Queen of Hearts? She’s a botoxed Barbie; stuffed into stiff haute couture dresses she can barely move in. And those lips??? She looks like she’s had more collagen injections than Meg Ryan after her infamously bad makeover disaster. It was impossible to take her seriously as a villain. I giggled at all her attempts to be menacing.
-Jafar. Oh BOY. So it turns out that behind the Queen of Heart’s schemes is an even more powerful villain - Agrabah sorcerer Jafar. Yes the snake staff wielding badass from Disney’s Aladdin come to life. He’s been secretly holding Cyrus captive and he needs Alice back in Wonderland to locate the genie’s bottle and give up her three wishes. Jaffar is played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews, which obviously means I WANT to love him…but the whole thing just felt preposterous. I really hate when Once Upon A Time (and now it’s spin-off) uses ABC’s Disney connection to bring very specific characters from their cartoon movies to life: Belle, Mulan, Ariel and now Jafar. The great thing about classic fairy tales is that they’ve been interpreted so many times in so many different ways. Re-inventing the characters feels natural and there are really no limits. Look what OUAT did with Little Red Riding Hood, turning her into the Big Bad Wolf! But the characters specifically invented or given shape by Disney cartoons don’t work the same way. They are only associated with one animated interpretation and when they’re brought into the OUAT universe the actor’s end up looking like kids in bad Halloween costumes. It doesn’t feel inventive or creative…it just feels weird. Especially when they’re not taking the character in a surprising direction, they’re just putting a human face to a cartoon. I mean what’s next? Is Simba going to come padding along?
-What bloody time period are we dealing with here? If Alice’s father’s carefully coiffed mustache and Jane Aust-ean attire are any indicator, she was definitely a child in old-timey England. She looks to be in her mid-20s now, so that should place us sometime in the early 20th century right? And yet the knave was living in modern day Storybrooke (the town in Maine that serves as the setting for Once Upon A Time) when the rabbit tracked him down to find Alice. Did they go back in time to Alice’s mental institution because there was no subtitle indicating that? It certainly didn’t look modern in that creepy hellhole, with its archaic treatment of the mentally ill. I’m thoroughly confused.
-Why was Alice – at least a teenager at the time – running around Wonderland in what looked to be an oversized 10-year-old’s party dress? That’s taking childlike wonderment a little too literally. And it kind of makes Cyrus seem like a pedophile for hitting on her.
Will I Watch this Again?
Overall, I’m a little disappointed so far. I was really enchanted with the trailer for Wonderland but a lot of the elements of the pilot left me cold. The romance really has me hooked and I can’t wait to see more of that, but hopefully the cartoonish villains don’t spoil the party too much.
Ratings for the pilot were pretty disappointing, with only 5.7 million viewers overall and a 1.6 in the 18-49 demo. Wonderland was thoroughly trounced by CBS' comedies and even bested by The X Factor. It did edge out NBC's comedies, but that's not saying much. I think ABC may have overestimated OUAT’s popularity and public’s appetite for a spin-off.