TV Review | ‘Wonderland’ brings campy fantasy back to TV
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 02:10
Fans and followers of the classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” story have never had a shortage of new material to feed their fantasy cravings. Lewis Carroll’s 19th century novel has spawned countless movie, book and television adaptations that only seem to multiply as time goes on. The long-awaited Oct. 10 premiere of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” presented viewers with yet another Alice-rework, this time shaking up the classic tale with a hodgepodge of CGI-fueled action and unrelated Disney characters. Faced with “Wonderland’s” overstuffed plot, fans may find themselves reluctant to travel down this new rabbit hole.
“One Upon a Time in Wonderland” is a self-proclaimed spinoff of ABC’s hit series “Once Upon a Time” (2011-present). It might be more accurate, though, to call the show a simple extension of the earlier series’ style — outside the title, the shows share little in terms of plot and characters. With creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz spearheading both projects, “Wonderland” has inherited the creative ideas of its mother series. Overdone effects, layered story lines and interwoven Disney movies are common threads, and those drawn to the frequent shifts from sugary sweetness to dazzling romance in “Once Upon a Time” will be able to settle into “Wonderland” quite comfortably.
Others, however, might not be able to get past a plot that teeter-totters between the seriously complex and the breathlessly corny. Picking up where the traditional adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland” leave off, the pilot presents its heroine fresh out of dream world, returning to a home that had all along believed her to be missing. Flash-forward to her teens and Alice, played fittingly by Sophie Lowe, finds herself residing in a Victorian mental asylum. She’s haunted by the thought of her second trip to Wonderland, where the love of her life, Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), was last seen falling at the hands of the evil Queen of Hearts. To help her forget her woes, a sinister panel of doctors presents Alice with the option of having a lobotomy, a la “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004).
This is perhaps the most coherent point in the pilot episode. While the images of a gothic mental hospital and seemingly evil doctors may seem timeworn, these scenes allow the viewer to get used to a single style and plot line. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before The Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) informs Alice that her true love is, in fact, still alive, whisking her back into Wonderland’s web of entangled worlds and whiplash flashbacks.
Now Alice, who has shed her usual innocent charm and adopted a persona of fierce independence, goes on a mission to rescue Cyrus, a genie adapted from Disney’s “Aladdin” (1992).
Jafar (Naveen Andrews) — the villain from “Aladdin” — is also found in this fantasy, on the hunt for his magic wishes with all the cobra-wielding hubris and none of the quiet intimidation of the original. If you think throwing “Aladdin” and “Alice” together seems random, you’re probably right: the stories are combined haphazardly, with little explanation other than Disney’s ownership of ABC.
Stranger still is “Wonderland’s” main villainess, the Queen of Hearts, played by Emma Rigby. Billowy lips and melodramatic dialogue aside, Rigby’s queen is underwhelming at her best and laughable at her worst, failing to induce the fear she strives for. A third flawed character materializes in the form of the cruel Cheshire Cat (Keith David), whose grainy appearance draws attention to poor green screen effects. Although modern technology has a tendency to dazzle more than disappoint, “Wonderland” is riddled with out-of-place characters and textures reminiscent of a video game. Given its lack of emotional nuance, the show is not left with much to rely on.
Despite its many shortcomings, the “Once Upon a Time” franchise is a success in its own right. In a TV world rife with reality shows and high-profile adult dramas, it carves out a niche of campy, unrestrained fantasy that manages to retain its cartoonish innocence. While viewers seeking out edgier entertainment are likely to turn to “Game of Thrones” (2011-present), younger viewers might be swept away by the idealistic romance of lines like “our hearts are entwined” and the repeated, “When you love someone, you don’t need proof. You can feel it.” Young girls and feminists, too, can rejoice in Alice’s determined attitude and unique ability to actually (gasp) rescue herself.
Still, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” is likely to fall flat with older viewers. The stunts are entertaining and the storyline is certainly unique, but those searching for the kind of imaginative nonsensicality of any other “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation will wind up mad as a hatter.