Hey kids, know what time it is? It’s “Mouse uses his folklore degree” time!
I know, I know, I’m excited too.
So, do you want to know what the difference is between a myth, a legend and a fairy tale (or “wonder tale” as the cool kids call them)?
A myth is a narrative relic from a now defunct religion. Thor, Odin, Zeus etc were all once worshipped, so any stories relating to them are myths.
A legend takes place in a real place and time, and may feature real historical figures but is nonetheless fictional or even fantastical. So, Saint Patrick casting out the snakes from Ireland is a legend. He was a real person, Ireland is a real place (I mean, I hope) but the events described are fictional. That’s a legend.
And lastly, a wonder tale takes place in a far off land in an unspecified time and is wholly fictional. Anything that begins with “Once Upon a Time, in a Land Far Far Away” will be a wonder tale. So Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, you get the idea.
Pinocchio is a book. With an accredited author. Published just a century before I was born. It is not a piece of ancient world folklore. So when Pinocchio and Gepetto showed up in Once Upon a Time, a series puportedly about “fairy tale” characters, I was a bit confused because they have about as much in common with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Hermione Granger. But of course, we all know why they’re actually here. Because this is a Disney show (well, an ABC show) and Disney made Pinocchio in 1940 (AND WISELY NEVER TRIED TO MAKE IT AGAIN).
And look, I’m sorry, I’ll get into the merits of the show in a bit, but something about this makes me deeply uneasy. Okay, here’s the premise of Once Upon a Time:
In a magical Fairy Tale Land, Prince Charming wakes Snow White and they get married. But the Evil Queen puts a spell on them that pulls them all into the real world and places them in a town called Storybrooke (sigh) where they spend decades living the same lives and never age. Only the Queen’s adopted son, Henry, seems to know the truth, as he has a magic book of fairy tales and has been able to piece together which fairy tale character everyone in town actually is. So what’s my problem?
Well, let’s take Grumpy. Grumpy is just one of the seven dwarves who we see in the background as Snow White’s story plays out. Now, this is very clearly not the 1938 Disney Snow White. The characters all look different, sound different, are costumed differently.
This is not based on the movie but a new version based on the original folk tale, right? All the elements we see here, Snow White, the Prince, the Queen, the magic mirror, the dwarves, are all from the original story. I mean, that’s the clear implication. But here’s the thing.
Grumpy is a Disney character. They created him. In the original story, the dwarves don’t have individual names or personalities. The famous names we know today were all Disney’s invention. And by including original Disney characters like Grumpy and Jiminy Cricket it feels like Disney are trying to Trojan horse them in to the canon of European folklore. It feels like an attempt to make Disney’s Snow White the ONLY Snow White, subtly implying that their version is the definitive one. And yeah, I know that it probably wasn’t intentional. I know the creators probably just thought “hey, we have the rights to Elsa from Frozen let’s use her”. But when has giving Disney the benefit of the doubt worked ever out well for anyone?
Anyway, let’s look at the show
Episode 1: Pilot
The first episode begins with the marriage of Snow White and Prince Charming which is rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Evil Queen. I briefly got excited, thinking we might actually get an accurate re-telling of the original Brothers Grim version of the story.
Hey, they weren’t called the “Brothers Cheerful”.
No, the Prince tells Snow not to sink to her level. The Queen then warns the whole kingdom that she will take their happiness away and the Prince throws his sword at her because apparently it’s fine when he sinks to her level and the Queen vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Meanwhile, in modern day Boston, a ten year old kid named Henry is reading the story on a bus. He’s on a mission to track down Emma Swan, a bail bondswoman who’s Henry’s biological mother and who gave him up for adoption when he was born. Emma is spending her 28th birthday alone and is understandably a little rattled by her son’s sudden appearance but she agrees to take him back home to “StorybRooke” Maine, a little town that’s like Twin Peaks but where the supernatural beings are less up their own asses.
In fairy tale land, Snow White is so freaked out about the Queen’s curse that she talks the Prince into letting her visit Rumpelstiltskin, who’s being held prisoner in a dungeon beneath the castle.
In exchange for learning the name of their unborn child, Stiltsy tells Charming and Snow that the Queen will trap them all in a prison of time but that their daughter will come to rescue them on her 28th birthday. He then asks them for the name and Snow reveals that its “Emma”. Oooooooh yeah obviously.
In Storybrooke, Emma learns that Henry believes that everyone in town is actually a fairy tale character and the Evil Queen is actually Regina Mills, the Mayor of the Town and Henry’s foster mother. She also learns that Henry is in therapy because he believes that everyone in town is actually a fairy tale character etc etc.
Emma meets the mayor who is hanging around with the Sheriff who is played by Jamie Dornan and who she is obviously fucking. So obviously, in fact, that when the show later revealed they were fucking and acted like it was a shocking reveal I was shocked that I was supposed to be shocked. Anyway, the Mayor thanks Emma for bringing her son back and then tells her that her kid has enough problems without the birth mother who abandoned him hanging around so kindly am-scray. Am-scray Emma does but on the road out of town she almost hits a wolf, swerves and crashes into a sign.
Back in Fairy Tale world, the Prince and Snow White decide to put their baby into a magical cabinet carved by beloved figure of world folklore, Gepetto (yes, I am still salty, yes it matters, no I will not shut up about this). The cabinet is designed to protect one person from the curse like a fridge protecting against a nuclear blast. As the Evil Queen’s curse closes in on the kingdom, the Queen’s army invades the castle. Don’t ask me why, I mean, this is all going to be wiped out by the curse anyway. Maybe she just wants to get one good invasion in and go out with a bang. Anyway, the Queen’s off-brand Nazgul attack and Charming has to fight his way through them with a sword in one hand and a baby in the other.
He’s injured but manages to get the baby into the cabinet.
Back in the real world, Emma wakes up in a cell in the sheriff’s office because if you find an unconscious woman in a wrecked car obviously you would assume she was up to no good and sling her in jail. And not. Y’know. Some kind of medical facility. Mayor Regina shows up to tell the Sheriff that Henry’s run off again and Emma offers to help find the kid. Emma pays a visit to Henry’s teacher, Mary Margaret Blanchard (why so coy? Just call her “Blanche Neige” and be done with it). Mary tells Blanche that she was the one who gave Henry the storybook and suggests she try looking for Henry in his castle, which turns out to be a castle themed playground. Emma finds Henry, tells him that his mother may be a hard-ass but she does love him and takes him back home. Regina tells Emma to get the hell out of her town, going so far as to threaten her. Emma decides to stay for awhile, partly to keep an eye on Henry and partly, one suspects, to fuck with Regina’s head. She books a room in a Bed and breakfast run by a woman named “Granny” and her grand-daughter Ruby (who are, obviously, Humpty Dumpty and Bluebeard). Emma then meets the mysterious “Mr. Gold”, who owns the entire town.
Episode 2: The Thing You Love Most
Once Upon a Time was created by two writers who worked on Lost and it follows the same basic structure that show did. Most episodes focus on one character, contrasting their adventures in the present day with flashbacks to their time in the fairy tale world. The second episode gives the Evil Queen the once over. After crashing Snow White’s wedding, the Queen returns to her own palace and consults with the Magic Mirror and her valet. She tells them that she’s going to enact “The Dark Curse” and they remind her that she traded the curse away to…sigh…Maleficent.
After some of the clunkiest, most exposition heavy dialogue I’ve ever heard the Queen demands the curse back and Maleficent refuses. They fight a magical dual and the Evil Queen beats Maleficent (FUCKING WHAT) and leaves with the curse. The Queen gathers a cadre of evil magic users and they try to enact the curse but it doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, Regina shows up at the Bed and Breakfast with a basket of apples for Emma because that’s her whole gimmick
Emma tells Regina she’s still going to stay and Regina replies that she doesn’t need to worry about Henry because she’s got him in therapy. Emma decides to pay a visit to Henry’s shrink, Doctor Hopper. She’s all “hey, I know patient confidentiality is sacrosanct and all…” and he’s all “nah, just take his file, it’s fine, you got an honest face”. This had me face palming until the show pulled the twist that Regina actually made Hopper give Emma the file so that she could frame her for stealing it. This is not a smart show, exactly, but it’s at least smart enough to know when something would be really dumb and subvert your expectations so, points for that, I guess.
In Fairy Tale land, Regina’s valet advises her to go to the person she originally bought the curse from, which turns out to be Rumpelstiltskin. She visits him in his incredibly secure dungeon and he tells her that for the curse to work she has to sacrifice the heart of the thing she loves most (hey, that’s the name of the episode). It turns out that’s the Valet, who is actually the Queen’s father (I’m sure they explain how that works later on).
Mary Blanchard bails Emma out of jail who then chainsaws one of Regina’s apple trees in revenge. In our final flashback to fairy tale land we learn that the Queen’s father’s name was Henry.
Episode 3: Snow Falls
This is the episode where I finally realised that this show was not for me.
This is our “Snow White and Prince Charming” episode, where we learn how these two crazy kids met. Now, translating a character like Snow White for a modern audience while remaining true to the basic essence of the character requires skill and finesse. Or, and hear me out here, you could just make her Catwoman.
Because that’s what they did.
Charming and his fianceé, Princess Abigail, are travelling through the woods when they get straight up robbed by a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be Snow White. And okay, it could have worked, maybe. I can see it maybe working with a different….everything. With all apologies to Ginnifer Goodwin who is a charming and versatile actor, “badass outlaw” is not in her wheelhouse. Secondly, this version of Snow is just such a complete 180 from the Queen Snow White we saw in the pilot, or the Mary Blanchard version that it feels like a completely different person who happens to be played by the same actor. Anyway, she steals the wedding ring that Charming is supposed to give to Abigail and he swears that he will find her.
In Storybrooke, Mary Margaret finds Emma sleeping in her car because she can’t stay at Granny’s any more because she now has a criminal record. She offers to let Emma stay with her but Emma refuses because she doesn’t do roommates.
In “Henry’s Cray-Cray” News, Henry has got it into his head that a “John Doe” coma patient in the hospital is Prince Charming and convinces Mary to read to him from his book. This causes John Doe to take her hand but when she runs to get the doctor he tells her that Doe’s condition is completely unchanged. But when she goes, he calls Regina to let her know.
Back in fairy tale land, Charming captures Snow in a big net like a common Wookie and threatens to turn her in to the Queen unless she returns the ring she stole. And she tells him that she already sold it to some trolls.
So they team up to get the ring back from the trolls.
Mary Margaret goes to read to John Doe again only to be told that he’s run off which is impressive for a guy who’s been in a coma for years but also not really medically wise. Regina is also at the hospital because she’s apparently John Doe’s emergency contact as she was the one who brought him into the hospital years ago.
Meanwhile, Snow White and Charming fight some trolls, get the ring, he saves her, she saves him, enemies become friends, friends discover that they have crazy sexual chemistry.
They part company and Charming tells her that his name is actually James.
In Strorybrooke, Mary Margaret, Emma, Henry and the Sheriff find John Doe in the forest, drowned in a river. Fortunately Mary Margaret is able to use Magic Hollywood CPR to bring him back to life (for what is Magic Hollywood CPR if not True Love’s Kiss?).
They bring John Doe back to the hospital and he and Mary Margaret seem to have an instant connection but then Regina shows up with a blonde lady and is all “Hey guess what, I found his wife, don’t all thank me at once”. Emma thinks that Regina suddenly finding Doe’s wife is super sus but Regina tells her it was possible because of what Emma’s own investigation turned up. And the episode ends with Emma accepting Mary Margaret’s offer of a spare room because her hatred of Regina has finally become stronger than her hatred of room-mates.
So, I got real mixed feelings about Once Upon a Time. On the one hand, I really like all the Storybrooke stuff. I know Jennifer Morrison got some flack for her portrayal of Emma Swan but I think she’s really good. She brings across the idea of this woman who never had a normal stable upbringing and so still feels like a kid in an adult world, hoping that no one sees through her disguise. She’s an interesting lead character and I dig her a lot. I also think Lana Parilla is flat-out great as Regina Mills, bringing real soap-villain energy in some scenes while also showing real humanity and hurt in others. Ginnifer Goodwin is honestly perfect as a modern day version of Snow White, managing to be sweet and kind without being a smiling doormat. And Robert Carlyle is effortlessly creepy as Mr. Gold.
The problem is, ALL these elements (with the exception of Emma who’s just a baby) also exist in the Fairy Tale world and there… they kinda suck. The Evil Queen is a Power Rangers villain, Snow White is (as discussed) apparently Catwoman and Carlyle is playing Rumpelstiltskin like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun after he fell in a vat of Joker Acid. He’s AWFUL. And I know he’s a fantastic actor, hell, he’s fantastic in this show as Mr Gold but his Rumpelstiltskin is an over-acted, gimmicky atrocity.
Then there’s the Fairy Tale land itself which just looks so damn cheap. And I know, it’s a network TV show, I shouldn’t be expecting Game of Thrones level sets, costumes and special effects. What I do think is a fair criticism is the dialogue. Dialogue is so goddamn important in creating a sense of place and time and every character just talks like a 21st century American. And I’ve got nothing against 21st century Americans as long as they stay away from our women but what’s the point of setting a story in two different worlds if you’re not going to take the time to make them feel distinct?
Despite that, I’ll confess there is something very moreish about Once Upon a Time. Spouse of Mouse and I were constantly ripping on it but we did end up binging most of season one so it’s clearly doing something right.
NEXT UPDATE: 02 March 2023
NEXT TIME: What if they made a Disney movie, and nobody came?
I saw it. It was fine but forgettable
Mouse: “So what’s the difference between a myth, a legend, and a wonder story?”
Me, instant response: “Marketing.”
Mouse, later: “Pinocchio is a novel.”
Me: “Still sounds like marketing.” 😛
Thanks for the review, Mouse; but maybe it’s because I’m super tired, but I couldn’t follow your plot summary at all. Surely it isn’t as nonsensical as my brain insists on rendering it… 😅
Looking forward to the new book, keep up the good work! 😁
Don’t feel too bad. Most times that Mouse reviews something I haven’t seen (or even stuff I’ve seen but was bad and I hated it), I forget names of characters and it can be hard to follow the plot summary. This show was no exception, since I never got around to watching it.
Eh, maybe I’m just bad at this.
Hmm… Nah, probably the source material. 😉
I heard that meaningful pause!
“like Twin Peaks but where the supernatural beings are less up their own asses.”
Never have I read a negative review of one of my favorite all time shows that I agreed with more.
I remember giving this show a couple of episodes back when it was new, and then my interest just sort of petered out. Didn’t dislike it, intended to watch more, never did. This review is interesting because it both sort of makes me want to give it another shot, and convinces me the same thing would likely happen.
I adore Twin Peaks even more than I despise Twin Peaks.
A true fan indeed.
Twin Peaks… The ultimate manifestation of a fandom love-hate relationship (well… Maybe disregarding everything Star Wars from Phantom Menace onwards).
My family was really into OUAT so I watched along, but then I realized that all I wanted was a full summary of the season. Luckily, Disney provided this at the start of every new season for all latecomers. Once I realized that, I stopped watching everything except that one “previously on last season’s OUAT” episode. (Much like the only Simpsons episodes I watch now are the Halloween specials.)
I didn’t see “Strange World.” Mostly because I barely saw any marketing for it and the marketing I did see told me nothing about the characters or the story, or even the setting apart from it being a strange world. I hate to say the Disney pendulum is in the down-swing away from great movies but . . . . I think the pendulum is in the down-swing.
Once upon a time there was a graphic novel called “Fables.” Its story was about characters from various fairy tale, legends and public domain stories (and characters from Disney that Bill Willingham thought were public domain) living in modern day New York.
But after awhile, people realized that behind its admittedly deserved Eisner Award-winning cover art was a story that became a jumbled mess of increasingly terrible characters, overly bleak plot lines and Willingham’s post-9/11 American jingoism. The comic, once so popular with several spin-offs and a planned TV adaption faded into obscurity as the public zeitgeist shifted away.
When this show was announced, several fans noticed the similarities between the two. And while the tone was notably different, it still suffered from increasingly terrible characters, a plot that seemed to have no idea where it was going and eventually faded from the public perception as newer and flashier programs came around.
Funny that this televised crossover fan fiction would set the stage for “Rings of Power” all these years later.
I’m a few volumes into Fables right now and having a good time… there’s the occasional alice-facepalming moment but for the most part I think it’s pretty well written. When does it start getting iffy? If the alice-facepalming moments start becoming the entire plot, I’d like to know in advance.
The first few volumes are okay, the facepalming starts to show up near the end of the war arc. But your mileage may vary.
I deeply enjoyed “Fables”… But yeah, towards the end of the “war” story arc, the story starts to lose its luster, and while there are still a few singular peaks after that, the story as a whole gets practically miserable just for misery’s sake (I mean it was often quite miserable before as well, but then it was relatable) and overall doesn’t reach the heights of before the big war story arc. It’s a case where it would’ve been a great way to end journey with a bang while at its peak, but then they kept going, only now they’re lacking a destination.
The authors of Fable once claimed that they were in negotiations with ABC for TV rights, but then Disney realized that they had all that adapted Fairy Tail stuff in their archives anyway, so they could just do it by themselves. I never watched OUAT, but from the summaries Mouse provided here… Yeah, I would say the claim holds water. The setup is eerily similar to Fables, only with a few roles swapped and – most importantly – the edges filed off! No way we can get character flaws like failing marriages, sexual kinks or running “necessary evil” things like “The Farm” in our Disney version of lovable fairy tale characters… You know, the stuff that made “Fables” so interesting to begin with!
My own experience with OUAT was 80% shipping Regina and Emma, which judging from Ao3 and Tumblr was fairly universal for the fandom.
I’m still of the opinion that the best take on fairy tales in the modern world story is “The 10th Kingdom.”
I have to add this- it is later revealed that Prince Charming’s name is not actually James. He stole James’s identity.
“Pinocchio is a book. With an accredited author. Published just a century before I was born. It is not a piece of ancient world folklore.”
This distinction exists only because of how recent Pinocchio is, specifically recent enough to have been Copyrighted. Each Fairy Tale and Legend probably Legend as a specific author’s work.
Some modern Authors specifically wanted their modern novels to be considered Fairy Tales like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Nope. Folklore is transmitted verbally and has no one accredited author.
Mouse, while your explanation undoubtedly has sound academic grounding, my natural inclination is still to cry “out upon you, pedant!” and pretend to disbelieve you out of pure
In compensation, I offer the author and the rest of his audience the hippalectryon, a combination of the hindquarters of a rooster and the front half of a stallion that I first learned of today, but which is already my Favourite legendary creature.
Asked why, I can only point to this particular visual pun and say “This creature gave me a mental image of Ray Harryhausen as parodied by the Monty Python team: Thank You, hippalectryon, thank you.”
Not in the modern world
I was obsessed with this show for a while. It had me up until Season 5 when the sheer godawfulness of shite that was their Camelot arc offended me so much that even the second half’s arc in the Underworld (which had some legitimately good episodes) wasn’t enough to redeem it for me.
Jennifer Morrison is fantastic up until the latter half of Season 4. Then in every scene, she looks so tired and worn out, and her acting choices very obviously lose their nuance. If she’s performing an emotional scene in Season 1, she’ll hit point A,B,C,D and E in an unorthodox way but also in a way that works and feels natural to the character. In Season 5 onward, it’s A to E and very obvious that she is so checked out (except the musical episode, where she reveals quite a nice set of pipes). It gets even more glaring alongside Lana Parrilla giving 110% and many others like Rebecca Mader, Jaime Murray, Giles Matthey, Emilie de Ravin etc are all having fun in their roles, which is enjoyable to watch. Most of the men not named Robert Carlyle and Sean Maguire however do little more than provide eye candy. Jared Gilmore loses interest in Season 4 and Henry just suddenly feels superfluous, which makes it even more annoying when the show keeps trying to force him to the centre of the action.
Oh OUAT. When it’s good it’s so good (and honestly the camp factor is part of my enjoyment) and when it’s bad….well. The good parts are some of my of my all-time favorite television.
I think the good fight has been lost on fairytales as only being those without a particular author. By that standard anything by Anderson wouldn’t count either.
I agree Bandit!Snow is…a choice but IMO they end up doing a decent job justifying how she got there and I’m okay with it.
Yeah Prince Charming sword-fighting whilst holding a baby was…*sighs dreamily*.
I’m one of the fans that vastly prefers Snowing and Emma to Regina and Gold, regardless of the fun the actors have with the latter two. Regina in particular works my last nerve in some of the later seasons.
Also…the second half of season four is some of my least favorite writing in anything ever. (Not so much for the villains of the arc but some really egregious character retcons I choose to blatantly ignore.)
Loved the review as always Mouse! ❤
I was trying to puzzle out how to make a little mischief by asking which of your categories the Matter of Britain/Tales of King Arthur et al ought to fall under (One could make a case for that particular story cycle falling under at least two of those definitions) but was then struck by a much, much more amusing thought:
Sir Thomas Mallory (MP) was the Jeffrey Archer of the Fifteenth Century.
Those wondering what I may be talking about are respectfully suggested to look up Mr Archer and also the most likely candidates for the authorship of LA MORTE D’ARTHUR (I’m not sure you would believe my explanation).
I have been meaning to get around to watching this for a very long time.