'Once Upon a Time' Review: Shows Enough Promise to Overcome Weak Fantasy Elements

The Enchanted Forest kingdom, land of fairy tales, is about to fall under a curse from the Evil Queen in ABC’s new Sunday night series “Once Upon a Time.”

Snow White learns through a prophecy that her child will one day save them all. As the Evil Queen’s curse overtakes the kingdom, Snow White and Prince Charming send their newborn daughter through a magic wardrobe to safety, hoping one day she’ll find her way home.

Years later, we meet Emma, a bail bondsman (“bail bondsperson”) on her 28th birthday. As she blows out a lonely candle, a little boy knocks on her door. Henry says he is the son she gave up for adoption 10 years ago and has come to find her so she can save his hometown, Storybrook. He shows her a fairy tale book and tells her it says she’s supposed to save them.

Naturally, Emma doesn’t believe the fantasy side of his story but agrees to take him back home to Storybrook, a Maine town Jessica Fletcher would be proud of. All the same fairy tale characters live there, but they have new names and new lives, and they have forgotten where they came from. No one ages, the clock in the square never ticks forward, and no one can leave without “bad things happening” except for Henry. Only Henry knows the truth.

The pilot left us with many questions: Why did the clock never tick (and what was so special about 8:15)? Why does no one age? How did Henry find out the truth, and why can’t he tell anyone? Will Henry’s father ever become a factor? Is Rumpelstiltskin also under the curse, or is he working with the Evil Queen to keep everyone trapped? Will Snow White and Prince Charming find each other again?

“Once Upon a Time” wins with its casting. Jennifer Morrison makes a great Emma. She’s tough and obviously lonely but still has a lot of heart. Ginnifer Goodwin is a charming Snow White. And Lana Parrilla plays a wonderfully subtle Evil Queen. Robert Carlyle, who plays Rumpilstiltskin/Mr. Gold, is regrettably only in about five minutes, but we can expect to see much more of him in the future.

Emma is a character you want to see find and fulfill her “savior” potential, and considering her penchant for finding and taking down “bad guys,” we can feel confident that in the end, she will rise to the occasion. And what a relief it was to not see her chase down her target in 4-inch heels. One cliché averted. I also wonder what, if any, significance there was in timing her return to Storybrook on her 28th birthday. Remember when princesses got to come home when they turned 16?

There’s also some creative cinematography in play. While the fairy tale side is full of vivid and fantastic colors and designs, everything in Storybrook is muted and neutral. Emma is the only character we see wearing bright colors, a subtle link to her Enchanted Forest origins.

No pilot is without its flaws, and most of these are in the fairy tale past. The dialogue gets clunky at times, and there are plenty of bad wigs and CGI. The Storybrook plot line also leaves a little to be desired. The Evil Queen destroys the Enchanted Forest kingdom so she can be … mayor of a tiny New England town? And Goodwin does not carry a pixie cut well. She comes across as ill rather than homely. None of these are so significant they overwhelm the story and characters, however, and they can certainly be overcome as the series progresses.

One of the challenges “Once Upon a Time” will face is how to service the source material for the fairy tales without being clichéd or warmed-over versions we’ve already seen. It looks like they’ve got nine episodes in the can so far. If they can carry this story past one season successfully, I’ll be impressed.

It’s difficult to do when you start a show with an ultimatum or declared climax. Goodness knows other shows have tried and failed (“Heroes'” tag line, “Save the cheerleader, save the world”). Color me cautiously optimistic. Here’s hoping they can keep the momentum going long enough to answer our questions.

“Once Upon a Time” airs at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

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