Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) was a little boy who cracked a very big secret about the town of Storybrooke, Maine: its inhabitants are all actually characters from classic fairy tales. In that maiden voyage, they were all firmly under a spell that rendered them ignorant of their enchanted pasts. The show flipped back-and-forth between the whimsical fantasy world and the contemporary Storybrooke, offering fresh twists on familiar characters. As their back-stories unfolded, there was plenty of humor but, more importantly, there was a surprising degree of poignancy. The duality of Regina and Mr. Gold’s respective personalities, with the ongoing struggle between each of their good and bad impulses, drives the narrative (then and now).
Flash forward a few years to the somewhat problematic fourth season, which starts off with the near-disastrous addition of characters popularized by the mega-hit animated film Frozen. A convoluted storyline involving sisters Elsa (Georgina Haig) and Anna (Elizabeth Lail) seems like a pandering attempt to cash in on the directly on the Disney-released property (seeing as Once airs on ABC, it too is part of the greater Disney family). In earlier seasons, the characters’ fairy tale incarnations were not based directly on their portrayals as seen in Disney animated films. It’s not easy to invest a lot of emotion in the sisters’ plight, but thankfully we get Elizabeth Mitchell as the Snow Queen (more of a throwback to the Hans Christian Andersen original story as opposed to the Disney version). Mitchell is excellent as the crafty villain and her back-story, as seen in episodes like “The Snow Queen,” provides a season highlight.
Ratings started out stronger, incidentally, which is a pity because the second half of the season is quite a bit stronger. I’m not entirely convinced that Cruella De Vil (Victoria Smurfit) really qualifies as a “fairy tale” character; this is just another too-blatant direct Disney tie-in. But she, Maleficent (Kristin Bauer van Straten, at a grave disadvantage after Angelina Jolie so thoroughly owned the character in Malificent), and Ursula (from The Little Mermaid, portrayed here by Merrin Dungey) join the ever-evolving soap opera as the search intensifies for the “Author” of Henry’s fairy tale book that seems to hold all the clues and secrets about this sprawling fantasy universe. High art it ain’t, but it’s a lot of a fun nonetheless.
Robert Carlyle’s dual characterization of Mr. Gold and Rumplestiltskin (the only actor in the cast who truly differentiates between his dual roles) remains the primary reason to keep watching. His troubled, tragic romance with Belle (Emilie de Ravin) is the series’ beating heart. But series regulars Jennifer Morrison (Emma Swan, Henry’s biological mother, who has great difficulty controlling her magical powers), Colin O’Donoghue as Captain Hook (or Captain Hand, if you prefer Emma’s nickname, bestowed upon Hook following the deal with Mr. Gold that restored his severed hand), Josh Dallas (as Prince Charming), and Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White) all contribute believable work. Second only to Carlyle as Once’s most engaging performance is Lana Parrilla’s complex portrayal of the Evil Queen.
Once Upon a Time is a gem, visually-speaking, and it always looks extraordinary when presented in 1080p high definition. The new Complete Fourth Season set is no exception. The often cut rate-looking CGI effects looks even less convincing than on the 720p TV broadcasts, but the cinematographers’ (Steven Fierberg and Stephen Jackson) work is often breathtaking on the full 1080p footage. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mixes never disappoint, with a perfect blend of dialogue, effects, and Mark Isham’s score.
There’s a fair amount of bonus material on Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fourth Season for fans to delve into. Perhaps most interesting are the 26 minutes of deleted scenes. But serious Once-heads will want to listen to the five episode commentaries, each featuring different participants (after sampling each, actress Lana Parrilla and writer Jane Espenson on the episode “Mother” offered the most entertaining listening). There’s also a trio of featurettes: “Defrosting Frozen,” “Behind the Magic Tour,” “Three Who Stayed,” (totaling about 26 minutes) and a five-minute blooper reel.
Make no mistake: if you’re not already up to speed on the entirety of the Once universe, season four is definitely not the place to start. But for those who’ve already invested three seasons-worth of time in this menagerie of characters, Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fourth Season offers hours of binge-watching fun. Hopefully, though, season five will begin to cut back on the jokiness and cut a little deeper in terms of genuine emotion.