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RERUN REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Written by Alex Reale

See, this is why I’m always pessimistic about spin-offs. Very rarely do we ever get a spin-off film or show that even comes close to the parent series. I wanted to like Once Upon a Time in Wonderland since I’m infatuated with its predecessor Once Upon a Time. However, by the third or fourth episode, I was feeling bored and uninterested in the show. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland had the potential to be great due to its interesting premise, respectable acting talent, and rich source material, but unfortunately, it falls flat around halfway through the season. (spoilers ahead!)

We’re all familiar with the story behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, right? Little girl follows a white rabbit through his hole and comes out in a strange, magical realm filled with monsters and anthropomorphic playing cards. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland builds off of this lore and explores what happened with Alice after she came back. Now, what do you think happens to someone who says they’ve spent the last few days/weeks/months in a magical, parallel world? People think that they either have a very powerful imagination, or that their minds may be in a questionable state. In this story’s case, it’s the latter.

Alice is sent to a mental health institution to have her brain checked out, but she knows for a fact that what she experienced was real. She vividly remembers all her adventures, from foiling the Red Queen’s plans, to falling in love with a magical genie named Cyrus. Worst of all, she remembers how, on one fateful day, the Red Queen killed Cyrus, causing Alice to fall into depression and to never visit Wonderland again. Just as Alice is about to go through a procedure to have her memories of Wonderland erased from her mind, the Knave of Hearts/Will Scarlet and the White Rabbit come to retrieve her, telling her that Cyrus has been seen alive and well.

The main tie-in between this spin-off and its parent series is the Knave of Hearts aka Will Scarlet, played by Michael Socha aka fake Jake Gyllenhaal. No, really – actor Michael Socha looks just like Jake Gyllenhaal. I think I’ve pointed this out before…

Anyway, the Knave/Will is the central connection between the two series. I faintly recall a moment from Season 4 where Robin Hood mentioned something about Will’s adventures in Wonderland. I must’ve misunderstood exactly what that meant the first time around since I hadn’t watched Once Upon a Time in Wonderland yet. Dammit – stupid chronology! But let’s back to the main point of the show…

I just want to state that I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I love the original book, I love most of the adaptations, etc. But this show was one version of the story that didn’t impress me. The concept of Alice being sent to an asylum is intriguing, but I’ve seen it done before in a similar manner in the video game American McGee’s Alice. This could just be nitpicking on my part; after all, I’m usually fine with reusing old ideas if they work (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, am I right?). I just wish we had something fresher in regards to Alice’s story.

Alice herself, portrayed by Sophie Lowe, is a mediocre character. Creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis could’ve done a much better job at building the protagonist of this series, which is a shame considering that they were able to develop such wonderful characters in Once Upon a Time. Only a few of the actors in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland really shined, but their talents were almost always overshadowed by Alice’s mediocrity.

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The show isn’t solely about Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, though. Disney, using its power of owning multiple properties, also incorporates elements from Aladdin, specifically Jafar, the evil sorcerer. I did a double-take when I noticed that Jafar was played by Naveen Andrews, who also portrayed Sayid on Lost (there are a lot of parallels between Once Upon a Time and Lost). Jafar wants to conquer Wonderland, but in order to do so, he needs the power of three genies (Cyrus and his two brothers). The only way he can get access to Cyrus is if Alice uses up three wishes that the genie had previously given to her. It’s a little hard to follow along on paper, I know, but when you watch the show, it makes a lot more sense. On a similar note, I wish they had brought back Giancarlo Esposito for a cameo since he played the genie in Once Upon a Time.

Throughout the series, we see and hear some familiar references from other stories and tales. Early on, Alice and the Knave of Hearts encounter Grendel from Beowulf. Although he plays such a minor character, it was fun seeing Grendel make a cameo. A part of me actually wished that Beowulf himself would show up, possibly to assist Alice on her adventures.

Speaking of references, the Red Queen casually mentions the Sarlacc at one point. Yes, a Sarlacc. That’s no coincidence. They intentionally name-dropped a popular Star Wars character. Does this mean we’ll see some type of crossover in the future? Give us Princess Leia in Season 6 of Once Upon a Time!

One of the biggest things I didn’t like about this season is what they did with the Jabberwocky. In the original tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Jabberwocky was a ferocious, dragon-like monster that made an appearance in a poem. In Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, they turned the monster into a seductive woman whom I would hardly call intimidating. What the hell? Why did they make this change? Were they trying to give the Jabberwocky a subtle hostility by portraying it as this mysterious woman? This is almost as stupid as what they did to Grendel’s Mother in that CGI Beowulf film from a few years back. Were there similar writers on both projects or something?

By the way – if my review seems kinda scattered and all over the place, that should give you a hint of what this series was like. It got pretty chaotic in the later episodes, and it was hard keeping track. Imagine the confusion of the haphazard chronological order of Once Upon a Time‘s flashback sequences, and then double it. That’s what you get with this spin-off.

The ending to the season was anti-climactic. It ends with a happily ever after for Alice and Cyrus, and an unhappily ever after for Jafar, the Jabberwocky, and the rest. It’s a pretty bleh ending for a pretty bleh spin-off. I liked the cute little touch in the finale where we see Alice reading the story of her adventures to her daughter and coming up with the official name of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But this small aspect didn’t do much to make up for the slightly-above-average finale and season overall.

Final Grade: C + 

+ The premise was interesting enough; Disney is really trying to show off its ability to combine its properties.

+ Some of the acting deserves credit, mostly in regards to Naveen Andrews’ portrayal as Jafar and Iggy Pop‘s voicing of the Caterpillar.

+ The small callbacks to Once Upon a Time were enjoyable, such as seeing Emma’s Bug and watching Grumpy leaving the diner.

– The storyline was a bit hectic to keep track of; I appreciate them for combining the world of Aladdin with the lore of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it just seemed clunky and mis-jointed.

– I HATE how they turned the Jabberwocky from a fearsome beast into a seductress.

– The spin-off series ultimately fails to capture the same magic as Once Upon a Time.

Extra Thoughts:

– I think plans for a second season to Once Upon a Time in Wonderland are non-existant, but seeing as Jafar is still a live, will we be making a return in Once Upon a Time?

Did you think Once Upon a Time in Wonderland fell flat compared to the parent series, or did you enjoy it? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

Alex Reale

From a young age, Alex knew he was destined to be a writer. He also harbored a deep infatuation with superheroes and comics. Luckily, he was able to combine these two passions through his role with A Place to Hang Your Cape, where he works as Junior Sidekick and Social Media Hero.

When he’s not writing for AP2HYC or working full-time as a content manager for a small business website, Alex is diligently at work on other creative projects including a fantasy novel collection and an independent comic series.

You can find Alex's first book, Dodger's Doorway, on Amazon!