This review contains spoilers.
1.1 Down the Rabbit Hole
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is an imaginative, whimsical adventure – the question is how much sticky sweet Mallow Marsh you’re willing to slog through to get to it. In the end, it boils down to this: If you are a romantic, you’ll love Once in Wonderland. If not, expect a lot of eye rolling in between the good parts.
Wonderland tells the story of Alice (Sophie Lowe), the little girl from Lewis Carroll’s classic novels, when she’s grown up. Everyone in Victorian England is convinced she’s insane, so she returns to Wonderland in search of proof and instead of finding it, falls in love with a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot). They go on all kinds of adventures and are hunted by the Red Queen (Emma Rigby), who knocks Cyrus off a cliff (he falls in slow motion while Alice yells “Cyruuuuuuuus!” Yeah, it’s one of those kind of shows.)
Later, Alice is in a mental institution preparing to undergo an invasive surgery to remove her memory when the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) breaks in and tells her Cyrus is alive and she needs to come back to Wonderland. Afire with the power of Twoo Wub, Alice suddenly breaks into Buffy mode and takes down like six orderlies barehanded. (I’m all for girl power, but really, you need to explain these things.)
The Knave is the best character so far. His witticisms are sometimes forced into the dialogue, but the talented Michael Socha pulls them off anyway. Sophie Lowe also makes a charming Alice, both cute and strong-willed. The two of them travel to Wonderland where they escape a Mallow Marsh (that is, a marsh made of marshmallow – clever, right?), barter wishes kept as diamonds in Alice’s shoe, and fight off the Cheshire Cat by throwing mushrooms at him. From the PR for this show, I didn’t expect it to be quite so silly. Sometimes charmingly whimsical and sometimes ridiculous, it has an undeniable lighter streak.
But it is dark at times, too. The gray-tinged world of the mental hospital with its surgical instruments and determination to crush any hint of imagination is genuinely chilling. The show also occasionally channels the creepier bits of Carroll’s original novel in its portrayal of Wonderland. The show is as dark as it is light. Think that sounds contradictory? Throw in the ass-kicking parts, the paperback romance parts, and the Disney references, and you’ve got a show with a serious identity crisis. Hopefully this is just some first-episode settling in, and OUaTiW will pick a tone and stick with it later on.
The romance is a problem from the get-go. Cyrus is totally smarmy. Nobody talks and acts like that on a first meeting with a girl unless he’s on the fast lane to getting some. Yet I have zero doubt that we are intended to find him charming and romantic. What’s happening here, really, is that an already cliché-prone set of writers is trying to initiate and build feelings for a relationship in the span of about two minutes. We have to care about this relationship, because the entire plot centers on Cyrus being captured and Alice trying to save him. The problem is, it’s virtually impossible to create a realistic, sympathetic couple that fast. (I was going to say it is impossible but then I remembered Up. So I’ll just say it’s impossible unless you’re Up.) The result: Cyrus’ too-fast flirting comes off as creepy and stalkerish, then we get some “they travelled the world together” commentary and are left to fill in the blanks. 95% of the shippers will support Alice and the Knave of Hearts, and then get very upset when it doesn’t pan out, even though they knew the Knave never had a prayer.
The Knave and Alice aren’t showing any signs of romantic chemistry, but at least they have the beginnings of a real relationship (the friends-who-fight-a-lot kind) and it’s pretty cute. I hope this doesn’t turn into a love triangle, because we’ve seen enough of those lately, and TV is sorely lacking in good male/female friendships.
As for Alice and Cyrus, they better get their act together because the show’s advertising is really pushing the love angle, even touting itself as “TV’s most epic romance.” Them’s fighting words.
Alice and the Knave are joined on much of their journey by the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow), on whom I cannot comment because the only thing I could think about when he was onscreen was the animation. That awful CGI from Once Upon a Time is back for Wonderland, and there’s more of it. A lot more of it. There’s the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, a chess-piece castle (a neat idea, but poorly executed), weird trees, giant mushroom forests… it’s everywhere, and it’s distractingly bad. I understand that these things cost a lot of money, but couldn’t they have gone with some creative set design? Or found some way to animate it so it looked surreal in a Wonderland-y way instead of just amateurish?
The villain role is a toss-up between the Red Queen and Jafar (Naveen Andrews). That’s the creepy skinny guy from Aladdin, and both he and Cyrus come from Aladdin’s Agrabah. I’m not sure what all these Aladdin elements are doing in there, but it shakes things up I guess. Neither villain yet shows any of the promise of Once Upon a Time’s fabulous villains Regina and Rumple – the Red Queen is lacklustre, and Jafar isn’t onscreen much. It’s too soon to really judge, though.
Early on, the episode links directly to Once Upon a Time with a scene of the Knave in Storybrooke, including cameos by Grumpy and Cinderella. One of the episode’s greatest mysteries is its timeline: how does Alice’s Victorian England link to modern Storybrooke, and where is Wonderland in the mix? Hopefully this will be explained in time.
The first episode of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is ambitious but uneven. It allows itself access to a full range of possibilities, and this results in both creativity and absurdity in turn. It’s a show best enjoyed without little analysis and no cynicism. If you’re the rainbow kisses and unicorn stickers sort, congratulations, you’ve just found your new favourite show. Everyone else, hang on, because I think it’s going to be a bumpy one. But some flashes of wit, imagination, and goofy-but-fun action hint that it may end up being worth the ride.
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