Blu-ray Review: Once Upon a Time: The Complete Third Season

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Convoluted yet compulsively watchable, ABC’s hit series Once Upon a Time: The Complete Third Season continues to mash up a wide variety of fairy tales, folk lore, and fables. As with the previous season, the third round doesn’t measure up to the standard set during its debut year. Once is a good show that occasionally flirts with greatness, always finding its heart and soul in its most ambiguous characters: Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla) and Rumplestiltskin, aka Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle). Whenever either of these actors are onscreen, Once becomes something special. Otherwise it’s a very mixed bag, with the churning variety of season three working as both blessing and curse.

Once season 3 Carlyle (380x253).jpgNo simple synopsis can convey the menagerie of plot lines concurrently running through the series. Anyone new to the show should take note: this is not a series that can be started mid-stream. The relationships between Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) and her son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), Snow White, aka Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming, aka David (Josh Dallas), Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), and the aforementioned Regina & Rumplestiltskin must be approached from the very beginning. Even then, the storytelling is never as clear as it should be. Too many season three episodes devolve into a formula involving a group of characters standing (or even sitting) around talking about what they’re going to do next. Too much planning, not enough doing.

Once season 3 b (380x253).jpgThe season focuses on two primary threads, the best of which involves a terrifically twisted take on the story of Peter Pan (Robbie Kay). Henry (who is also the adopted son of Regina) gets caught up with the deceptively friendly Pan, following him to the Neverland to hang with the Lost Boys. But Pan is a snake in disguise, with a shocking tie to another primary character. Robbie Kay is a series standout, playing the dualities of Pan’s seductive yet threatening personality to a tee. As Gilmore ages, he has shown some growing pains in his portrayal of Henry (the actor has aged more significantly than the character, forcing him to overemphasize Henry’s boyishness). But the Pan story line also gives Gilmore a chance to exercise his thesp chops when Pan inhabits his body. It’s all another volley in the game of controlling the Evil Queen’s curse that has driven Once since episode one.

Once season 3 a (380x253).jpgThe other major arc in season three involves Evil Queen Regina’s newly-revealed half sister, Zelena (Rebecca Mader). Zelena is in fact the Wicked Witch of the West and the curses and counter-curses fly pretty furiously upon her arrival in the Enchanted Forest. She’s after, among other things, the soon-to-be-born offspring of Snow and Charming. Mader has fun digging into an unabashedly villainous role. Zelena’s arrival ushers in a charge of fresh energy in the season’s second half, but it also complicates matters to the point of near incoherency at times. Once’s writing staff simply isn’t adept at handling quite this many plots.

Between keeping up with who’s crushing whose heart, time travel curses that reset the timeline of events (leaving some characters with erased, or at least highly suspect, memory banks), and every fairy tale character from Ariel (JoAnna GarcĂ­a Swisher) to Mulan (Jamie Chung) to Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) to Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), Once is a bit of a chore to keep up with sometimes. Rumple’s tortured relationship with Belle (Emilie de Ravin) remains a prime focal point, with both de Ravin and Carlyle turning in some of the most incisive acting. But the feeling that crept into season two—that the writers are making this all up as they go along—becomes stronger throughout the shenanigans of season three. It’s almost always fun to watch, but it’s often difficult to see the bigger picture (the point of it all, if you will) amidst the tangents.

Once season 3 Zelena (380x253).jpgBuena Vista’s Blu-ray presentation continues the impeccable track record established by the previous two seasons. The Complete Third Season elevates the moody cinematography to theatrical feature level, with the 720p broadcast resolution upgraded to full 1080p and looking all the better for it. Sure, the digital effects are never quite big-budget movie quality, but they look fine for what they are. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtracks for each episode also add to the effect, making Once Upon a Time a significantly improved viewing experience and a testament to the superb technical effort invested by the show’s creative team.

Fans clamoring for added content should be more or less satisfied with what is included, though the Blu-ray exclusive “Inside the Writer’s Room” is a severe disappointment. What promises to be an illuminating glimpse at the scripting process turns out to be a staged joke about how the writers decided to bring Frozen into the Once realm. That also highlights a weakness of the series, a willingness to throw just about anything into the mix and see what sticks (best exemplified by the dopey inclusion of Dr. Whale, aka Dr. Frankenstein, portrayed by David Anders). Just because ABC parent company Disney had a massive hit with Frozen doesn’t necessarily mean that it will magically fit into the Once storyline.

Once season 3 Charming (380x253).jpgLuckily we get some very listenable, insightful commentary tracks for some of season three’s very best episodes. Disc one has commentary for “Lost Girl” featuring writers Andrew Chambliss and Kalinda Vazquez. Robert Carlyle (Rumple/Mr. Gold) fans will be thrilled that he’s part of the commentary on disc three’s “Think Lovely Thoughts,” joined by writers David H. Goodman and Robert Hull. Disc four finds Goodman joined by Colin O’Donoghue (Hook) for a commentary on “The Jolly Roger.” Lastly, the season finale on disc five, “There’s No Place Like Home,” features co-creators/executive producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.

There 12 minutes of deleted scenes, a not-so-funny blooper reel (mostly just the actors pulling funny faces), a 12-minute featurette “Wicked Villains” (focused, obviously, on the bad guys), and the silly promo short film “Comic Con Meets Ariel.” More interesting, but still EPK-oriented, is “The Tale of Ariel.” It’s a bit disappointed there isn’t a full-fledged “making of” documentary, but the commentaries help make up for the rather slim video-based features. In addition to hearing from Robert Carlyle, producers Kitsis and Horowitz add a lot of great information (making one wish they had provided commentary for more than one episode).

Once Upon a Time: The Complete Third Season is by turns exciting, inventive, and frustrating. The ensemble is huge and it will be interesting to see how season four handles new characters (and which ones will be jettisoned). If you’re already a fan, hardcore or merely casual, The Complete Third Season is a first-rate way to watch the show.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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