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Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season(TV) (2011-2012)
Emma Swan gets the surprise of her life when Henry, the son she gave up 10 years ago, arrives on her doorstep. Returning the boy to his adoptive mother becomes complicated when Henry reveals a stunning theory to Emma. Everyone in Storybrooke, Maine is a fairytale character under a curse, and Emma - as the long lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming - is the one who can save them all. The story unfolds; interweaving scenes of the drama in the sleepy New England town and the the inhabitants' past lives in the world of fairy tales. The timeless battle of good vs evil is ready to begin again.
For more about Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season and the Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray release, see Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on August 30, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parrilla, Jamie Dornan, Josh Dallas, Jennifer Morrison, Jared S. Gilmore
» See full cast & crew
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review
A charming beginning. Let's see where it goes from here...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, August 30, 2012
Game of Thrones has the grim-n-gritty fantasy market cornered. True Blood has it down when it comes to vampires and werewolves and fairies, oh my. Being Human and The Vampire Diaries aren't far behind. And until Smallville flew off into the sunset last year, fanboys had their weekly fill of superheroes and villains. (Look to the horizon; Arrow and Oliver Queen are inbound.) Fringe has beasties of science aplenty, Grimm is knee deep in Brothers Grimm lore, and Supernatural... well, TV's finest blend of horror, fantasy, myths, local lore and world-ending threats of Biblical proportions (literally) continues to give insatiable genre hounds their sharply penned seasonal fix. But, for better or worse, new contender Once Upon a Time has something the others don't, and it isn't just a lineup of classic fairy tale characters. Ten-million viewers drawn from multiple demographics, males and females alike. Long story short, Once Upon a Time isn't in danger of going anywhere. All it needs is more of the polish the second half of its uneven, sometimes stilted first season offers and it'll be a crowd-pleasing hit all the years of its happily-ever-after life.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful little ABC series that showed promise; enough promise to earn the loyalty of an adoring fanbase. Before the sun set on its twenty-two episodes, it traveled through deep darkness, brambly underbrush and terrible storms -- or, to be more specific, hit-or-miss visual effects, holes in internal logic, at-times god-awful dialogue, occasionally frozen-in-time pacing, and a few wooden performances (most notably Ginnifer Goodwin's) -- only to emerge a stronger, more viable, albeit still fundamentally flawed show. And that show, like the best modern takes on classic fairy tales, becomes strangely addicting over time, helping viewers weather the rough patches it traverses and make it through to the episodes that really sink their teeth in. The trick is trudging through its early, thorny stretches to discover the enchanted kingdom that lies beyond. (Something my wife assures me isn't nearly as difficult as she claims I made it.)
The show's premise is quite clever. When a vindictive and embittered Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) -- yes, that evil queen -- grows tired of seeing everyone in her fairy tale world live happily ever after, Snow White (Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) especially, she casts a spell to end all spells, trapping herself and her kind in the quaint, 21st century town of Storybrooke, Maine. Everyone -- creatures, dwarves, fairies, talking crickets and ex-marionettes -- looks human. Everyone is oblivious to their true identity. And no one, the Queen included, has any memory of his or her storybook origins or powers. The Queen becomes Regina Mills, the power-hungry mayor of Storybrooke. Snow White becomes mild-mannered teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard. Charming becomes John Doe, a man in a coma separated by the Queen's curse from his one true love. The Hunstman (Jamie Dornan) becomes Storybrooke lawman Sheriff Graham. Tiny Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) becomes psychotherapist Archie Hopper, and so on and so on. I'd delve into other transformations, but much of Once Upon a Time's fun comes in seeing which iconic characters pop up next and in what form they appear. And with Disney backing the series, you can bet there are numerous nods to the studio's Golden Age and Renaissance animated features.
Before the Queen's spell takes hold, though, Snow White, Prince Charming and their fellow council members -- Gepetto (Tony Amendola), Granny (Beverley Elliott), Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), Grumpy (Lee Arenberg) and several others -- devise a way to magically spare one person from the Queen's wrath. That person turns out to be Snow White's newborn baby, Emma, in a scene ripped straight out of Superman. (A coming apocalypse, a child placed in an escape pod at the last minute, tearful parents bidding the babe farewell, an orphan destined to be a savior... no doubt about it.) Twenty-eight years later, Emma (Jennifer Morrison), having grown up in the Earthly realm without any knowledge of her lineage, gets a surprise visit from her son Henry Mills (Jared S. Gilmore), who she gave up for adoption a decade earlier. (Head spinning yet?) It turns out Henry, in a cruel twist of fate, was adopted by Regina (that's right, the Queen) and raised in Storybrooke. But unlike his mother and neighbors, the boy -- with the help of The Great Book of Fairy Tale Exposition -- has pieced together what happened so long ago, who his mother actually is, who his teacher really is, and how Storybrooke came to be. Emma, it seems, is the only one who can break the Queen's curse. Not that the Queen is the only sinister force operating out of Storybrooke Emma and Henry have to worry about. Devious trickster and former castle inmate Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) is now the scheming Mr. Gold, a wealthy pawnshop owner who may or may not have an idea of his true nature.
And so it is that Once Upon a Time unfolds, not from beginning to end in orderly fashion, but with leaping, frolicking nonlinear time-hopping deployed to keep the story fresh. From the distant past (where we learn about the various characters' origins a piece at a time) to the days surrounding the casting of the Queen's devastating spell to the week-to-week obstacles Emma encounters while trying to learn more about her son and the denizens of Storybrooke, the series weaves an endless array of tales together into a single, cohesive narrative. Better still, there are enough unexpected surprises to make each knight-or-damsel-of-the-week plotline different from the last, expanding the show's mythology, ensemble ranks, and poison-apple intrigue more and more with each passing episode. The show's writers top themselves time and time again too. Even when an episode falters, a subplot sags, or a flashback threatens to teeter off the green-screened rails, their crafty overhauls of Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten), Cinderella(Jessy Schram), the Magic Mirror (Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito), Belle (Emilie de Ravin), Pinocchio (Eion Bailey) and other childhood favorites -- not to mention the "Snow White" mainstays and stowaways -- make it all too easy to forgive and forget. That is if you're able to switch off the critical center of your brain and accept the series on its own demands and terms. It seems for every hit there's a miss; for every ingenious reincarnation (Rumpelstiltskin!) there's a botched reimagining (Little Red Riding Hood).
Snow White is the biggest disappointment, with little to do for most of the season and little to offer thanks to Goodwin's self-induced coma. The Big Love castaway was dead on as Bill Henricksen's oh-so-naive blank slate of a third wife, but Once Upon a Time suggests Goodwin wasn't acting as much as she let on. Even in her feistiest flashbacks, Snow has trouble connecting and even more trouble emoting. She plays forlorn and lovelorn like a pro, sure. It's everything else that gives her problems. On the other end of the spectrum, Parrilla is a whole lot of cheesy, villainous fun, but there's a fine line between over-the-top and campy; a line the Spin City alum steps over too often. There are other would-be misfits and mis-castings, but none that distract from whatever new character lies around the bend as much as Snow White and the Queen. The sometimes gorgeous, sometimes garish hyper-storybook CG environments of the series' fairy tale world only complicates matters, as do the never-ending stream of plot holes and gaps in storytelling, most of which litter the first half of the season. (And many of which involve the rather problematic comings and goings of young Ben, the intrusion of his birth mother, Emma's pick-up-and-move relocation and intrusion into her son's life, and the fact that it takes her so long to start accepting that Ben's wild claims might actually be true.)
Once Upon a Time cast quite a spell on its broadcast audience, but I doubt it would take much more than a kiss to break its hold at this point. The series' first season is decent and ends on a run of ensnaring episodes. But television viewers are a fickle bunch, and it isn't entirely clear if Once Upon a Time will be able to lure them back, season in and season out, without running out of steam and ideas. If the worst of the first season's plotting, dialogue and patchwork performances infect Season Two, I suspect it will slowly fizzle. Oh, it'll still be around. It just won't draw the same crowd, bring in new viewers, or prove itself a fairy tale worth telling. If it builds on the foundation laid by its first twenty-two episodes, though, it could turn out to be something more than the high-concept primetime soap opera it tends to be. So tighten up those scripts, writers! Wake up, Ginnifer! To arms, to arms, showrunners! Once Upon a Time could be a must-see series. It'll just take more than a wish upon a star to turn it into a real contender.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Video Quality
The high point of Disney's 5-disc Blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season is its bewitching 1080p/AVC-encoded video presentation. Scouring the dark forests of the series reveals some rather obvious banding, but it only pops up in the green-screened night skies of the fairy tale kingdom (most likely making it a CG-born source issue) and each instance disappears moments after rearing its ugly head. Noise spikes on occasion too, although it too traces back to the source. Otherwise, the encode is spot on. Colors are rich, rosy and lovely in Snow White's kingdom, fairer and more natural in Storybrooke and, really, as inviting or foreboding as needed. Primaries are beautiful too, skintones are nicely saturated, and black levels are satisfying (despite some smoky, muted shadows in some of the fairy tale flashbacks and real world intrigue). Detail is enchanting too, with crisp, clean edge definition (free of ringing and other anomalies), neatly resolved fine textures, and excellent delineation. But there's a trade-off. Makeup applications are almost too revealing, exacerbating every seam and shortcut. The show almost looks too polished, with a digital sheen common to many new modestly budgeted series. Still, the encode is proficient. Aside from the aforementioned bouts of banding, I didn't take note of any significant artifacting or macroblocking, aliasing, crush, smearing or anything that might tear down the fantasy the showrunners squeeze into the frame. Yes, it still looks like a TV show, and a glossy TV show at that. But you can't fault the presentation for every not-so-cinematic shortcoming or CG eyesore. If it only came down to its encode, Once Upon a Time might live happily ever after...
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Unfortunately, it doesn't only come down to its video presentation. Disney's dutiful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track does everything that's asked of it; the series' sound design just doesn't ask for very much. Front-heavy, front-heavy and much too front-heavy, the show relegates the rear speakers to light ambience, smooth but unremarkable pans, and very few genuinely directional flourishes, regardless of how intense intense an episode becomes. Not to be overly hyperbolic but... battles rage around the center channel. Fairy tale heroes rally around the center channel. Conversations emerge from the center channel. Sword fights and chases dash past the center channel. The Queen plots her evil plans near... you get the idea. There are a small handful of scenes per episode that border on immersive (I stress border) but the moment they end it's back to business as usual, and business is almost always conducted in the vicinity of the screen. Mark Isham's music is thankfully given leave to venture out more freely, though, as are bursts of magic and the occasional creature roar, pixie in flight, swelling storm and romp through the forest. The culprit behind such bland sonics and acoustics? Blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the show's uninspired sound design, which can be as flat as some of the CG'd fairy tale locales the actors occupy. Fortunately, dialogue is warm, intelligible and well-prioritized, LFE output is more than adequate, fidelity is terrific, and dynamics are commendable, even if they too have little to flaunt. Once Upon a Time's lossless track fails to lure listeners into the dual worlds executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have created. Hopefully the series' sound design is at the top of the showrunners to-be-improved list this coming season.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Given enough episodes, Once Upon a Time will cast its spell on anyone willing to continue on. It isn't a very strong spell, or a very deep trance, but it kept me curious and plowing ahead. The second half of the first season is thankfully much better than its opening volley of episodes, and Season Two only promises to be more absorbing. If, that is, the series' showrunners and writers can continue to tweak, twist and resurrect classic fairy tale characters to such delightful ends. Disney's Blu-ray release is a bit of a mixed bag too. It boasts an outstanding video presentation, but its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track leaves something to be desired and its supplemental package is a bit light on commentaries and lengthy behind-the-scenes documentaries. Be that as it may, Once Upon a Time is worth a look, especially if the likes of Supernatural, Grimm, True Blood and other inventive and re-inventive fantasy series occupy your DVR queue.
Once Upon A Time: Other Seasons
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