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Fairy tales come alive on 'Once Upon a Time'

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The world of fairy tales was once almost the exclusive dominion of Disney animation. Over the years, the fantasies that we all know (well, more or less) have been re-imagined in any number of ways, but not many of those alternate versions have caught on with audiences. That hasn't stopped studios from trying, though; there are two Snow White films in production right now, for example, one with "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart in the lead role.

On television, there are a pair of series premiering that take a broader view. One is "Grimm," which will debut this Friday on NBC; the other is ABC's "Once Upon a Time," which airs Sundays at 7 p.m., and enjoyed one of the highest-rated opening nights of any show this new season.

While I haven't had a chance to watch "Grimm," a fairy-tale spin on the crime procedural, I have seen "Once," and while I'm not totally sold on the long-term possibilities, there's also a lot to like about it.

The basics. Once upon a time, in the universe of "Once Upon a Time," an evil queen (played by Lana Parilla) interrupts the wedding of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), threatening all those in attendance with a terrible curse -- she intends to take away happy endings once and for all by transporting everyone existing in that fanciful life to a place that she describes as "horrible" -- the real world.

There is one hitch in her plan, however; Snow White is expecting a child, one that the odious Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) foretells as the warrior that will defeat the evil queen in 28 years. After Snow White delivers the baby girl, she asks her husband to hide the child in an enchanted wardrobe, which he does, just before he is struck down by one of the queen's soldiers.

Across realities, a young woman named Emma (Jennifer Morrison) is going out on a blind date. The handsome charmer she's meeting, however, is no prince -- he's a crook who jumped bail. And Emma knows it, since she's the bail bondsman (er, person) who has set out to bring him back to justice.

After making the arrest, she returns to her empty apartment to blow out the candle on her birthday cupcake, and as she does, there's a knock at her door. Behind it is a young boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore) who has two bits of news for Emma. The first is that he's the son she gave up for adoption ten years before; the second is that he needs her to accompany him to a town named Storybrooke, Maine, where the fairy tale characters from the parallel universe are trapped, perhaps forever, and only Emma can save them.

Why? Because Emma, who believes that she was abandoned on the side of a highway as a newborn, is actually the child that Snow White and Prince Charming concealed in that wardrobe 28 years before.

I know, I know. The story -- as I've communicated it -- sounds convoluted and silly. The surprise, however, is that as I watched it, I found myself drawn into the world of the show. The program portrays the alternating realities effectively; the fairy tale world is richly rendered, while the real world is shown with a harder, colder edge.

The performances are also solid. Most of the actors have dual roles thanks to the nature of the plot and do just fine in both parts: besides playing Snow White, Goodwin is also Mary Margaret, Henry's sweet-natured school teacher; Parilla takes on the additional role of Regina, Storybrooke's tough-as-nails mayor (and Henry's adoptive mother); Carlyle isn't only Rumplestiltskin, he also plays Mr. Gold, a shadowy figure in the community.

After watching the pilot of "Once Upon a Time," I wondered aloud if this wouldn't have been better off as a four- or six-part mini-series, and the question still lingers in my mind. Sure, these characters and situations could make for something extraordinary, but can this premise truly be sustained (and perhaps improved) over the span of a full season? The early ratings indicate that there's interest in the concept, so the next few weeks will be critical. If the writing slips -- or worse, starts spinning the show's wheels -- then "Once Upon a Time" won't have a happy ending.

For right now, though, I'm willing to recommend it. I liked the opening and I'm more than ready to see how the next chapters go. Three stars (out of four).

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center