The appeal of Once Upon a Time is grounded in the idea of reviving and expanding the stories of classic and cherished fairy tale characters, but in its fourth season, this notion is somewhat abandoned with the decision to integrate fresh contemporary icons into the series. Even though the Frozen characters are certainly beloved by many, it seems odd that these newcomers would be so quickly adopted into the world of much more established fairy tale icons, such as Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and Sleeping Beauty. In what appears to be more of a publicity stunt to capitalize on the immense popularity of this recent animated hit, Storybrooke is looking more like Disneyworld than a classic fairytale world.
The central theme of Once Upon a Time is love in its various forms, and its fourth season continues in that vein with the introduction of the sisterly love between Frozen’s Anna (Elizabeth Lail) and Elsa (Georgina Haig). While romantic love does figure prominently, although many viewers might agree not prominently enough in the case of Emma Swan’s (Jennifer Morrison) relationship with the steamy Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), familial love is the primary focal point, particularly because nearly all of the main characters are related in some way, giving the series an almost incestual undertone. They are at least often bemusedly self-aware of the ridiculousness of this situation, but the continued emphasis on familial bonds is still a bit overdone, as has been the case throughout the entire series.
However, the second half of this season shifts focus to a more intriguing theme that has been built into the series from the beginning yet has not been deeply explored until now. Playing with the dichotomy of heroes and villains, Once Upon a Time blurs the line between good and evil by reexamining these classic characters’ motivations from different perspectives. Although the reliance on absolutist ideologies, reflected by the persistent use of terms such as “hero” and “villain,” does a bit of a disservice to the characters, making them seem more one-dimensional and archetypal than they really are, this shift away from a tired re-hashing of the same emphasis on family bonds and loyalty to the complex notions of “good” and “evil” represents a vast improvement.
The season aired in two parts, and it certainly feels like two separate mini-seasons. The first half focuses on the introduction of the Frozen characters and their somewhat clumsy integration into Storybrooke, despite the writers’ repeated assertions that they prioritized the existing characters and and the impact these outsiders would have on them. The biggest attempts to do so include a supposed connection between Emma and Elsa due to their wariness of and lack of control over their similarly burgeoning magical powers and the Snow Queen’s (Elizabeth Mitchell) deranged obsession with making these two her sisters based on a conveniently enigmatic prophecy. These connections are tenuous, and a greater integration of the other, more interesting Arendelle characters, such as the bubbly and amusing Anna, whose rendering by promising new actress Elizabeth Lail is both faithful and fresh, and her quirky and fully supportive fiancé Kristoff (Scott Michael Foster), is a sadly missed opportunity.
The attempts to foreshadow the second half of the season also feel somewhat tangential; Mr. Gold’s (Robert Carlyle) strange scheming with and visits to the “Queens of Darkness” and Regina’s (Lana Parrilla) quest to locate the “Author” of the storybook are tacked onto the episodes without clear relevance to the rest of the events. That being said, once you actually get to the second half of the season, the storyline is much more focused and compelling, highlighting the perspectives of the so-called “villains”, namely Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten), Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit), and Ursula (Merrin Dungey), and their quest to get their happy endings. These characters are humanized as their motives are explained through their backstories, and while their insistence on retaining the label is somewhat odd, they show that a “villain” is not always outright evil, and instead may simply be misunderstood.
The DVD’s audio commentaries are quite good, particularly because they are done by the writers of the corresponding episodes, so they discuss more than just behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the filming of the scenes. Thankfully, Jane Espenson, the writer responsible for some of the show’s best episodes as well as some of its funniest dialogue, is one of the commentators, and while she and actress Lana Parrilla spend a lot of time simply praising various cast members for their kindness and hard work, they also provide insightful background on the structure of the plot, and the characters’ development and motivations.
Interestingly, the commentators all continuously praise the purportedly expensive special effects and stress that they turned out so great, which is surprising given their cheesy, almost cartoonish appearance. It may be expected that a fire-breathing dragon would not look realistic, but there are other, less fantastical elements that still stick out like a sore thumb. The rock troll Grand Pabbie, for example, while magnificently voiced by John Rhys-Davies, appears strangely out of place in the live-action realm, barely resembling the real boulders surrounding him. While they might be admittedly impressive for a television budget, the unnatural visual effects do not deserve the praise they have apparently been receiving.
Frozen‘s Grand Pabbie the rock troll in Once Upon a Time
All things considered, though, the writers have done an admiral job of juggling a cumbersome conglomeration of variegated fairy tale stories and their real-world counterparts, and Season 4 of Once Upon a Time may include some of the best acting in the series yet because of the focus on some of the more talented cast members and their more interesting characters. The minimal involvement of the irritatingly flat Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) is a merciful relief, and the increased attention to the more complex emotions of recovering villains Regina and Gold was a smart move.
Overall, the latest season of ABC’s fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time takes an already complex and meandering story and complicates it still further by adding in a whole host of new characters. While the introduction of already beloved fairy tale characters was a source of excitement in the early seasons, the cast is becoming so manifold and unwieldy that even the actors and writers admit to great difficulty keeping the story straight. However, with a new focus on the more compelling characters and hinting toward greater thematic depth, this series could be ready to revive itself in the same way it set out to revive its traditional inspirations.