More of Won­der­land

Strong char­ac­ters and a well-re­alised set­ting make this more than just another spin-off.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Once­UponA­Time

WITH the huge suc­cess of Once Upon A Time ( OUAT, now in its third sea­son in the United States), it is not sur­pris­ing that a spin-off idea emerged from the tele­vi­sion se­ries’ many tan­gled plot­lines. And given that some of OUAT’s most in­ter­est­ing episodes have in­volved Won­der­land – who could for­get de­li­cious char­ac­ters like the Mad Hat­ter and The Queen Of Hearts? – it also makes sense to set this new se­ries in the realm that was birthed in Lewis Car­roll’s imag­i­na­tion.

And so we get Once Upon A Time In Won­der­land, a show that re­volves not around fairy tales but el­e­ments from Car­roll’s richly imag­i­na­tive, clas­sic book; not to men­tion, weav­ing in bits and pieces from Dis­ney’s Aladdin as well.

You can’t, of course, set a story in Won­der­land and not in­clude its most fa­mous vis­i­tor, and so the show nat­u­rally in­cludes Alice (So­phie Lowe). The se­ries be­gins with an adult Alice hav­ing just re­turned to Vic­to­rian Lon­don from Won­der­land, where she not only ex­pe­ri­enced a fan­tas­tic ad­ven­ture but also fell in love with a hand­some ge­nie named Cyrus (Peter Ga­diot), whom she be­lieves was killed.

Thanks to her im­pos­si­ble-sound­ing sto­ries, Alice is com­mit­ted into an in­sane asy­lum, where she agrees to a treat­ment that will erase her mem­o­ries of Won­der­land for­ever. When the White Rab­bit (voiced by John Lith­gow) and Knave Of Hearts (Michael Socha) sud­denly turn up to tell her that Cyrus is still alive, how­ever, she es­capes with them back to Won­der­land on a quest to find her love again. Lit­tle does she know it is part of a larger scheme en­gi­neered by the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and Ja­far (Naveen An­drews).

Won­der­land fol­lows a sim­i­lar struc­ture to OUAT, shift­ing from the past to the present in each episode to ex­plain the char­ac­ters’ back­sto­ries as well as cur­rent hap­pen­ings. Where it seems to of­ten top its pre­de­ces­sor is in its stream­lined plot. Un­like OUAT, which with each sea­son seems to sprawl ever more un­man­age­ably, Won­der­land in­tro­duces a set of char­ac­ters and keeps the fo­cus strictly on them. Per­haps the showrun­ners learnt a les­son from OUAT’s first sea­son, that hav­ing a large cast of char­ac­ters of­fers a lot of po­ten­tial but keep­ing all their sto­ry­lines solid and rel­e­vant is a very big chal­lenge in­deed.

What Won­der­land has go­ing for it so far is a strong cast. Lowe makes an en­dear­ing enough Alice, and the show gives her a gutsy per­son­al­ity, though I would have liked to see more of the whimsy one as­so­ci­ates with the char­ac­ter. Ga­diot is thus far a ser­vice­able lead­ing man, but the char­ac­ter of Cyrus has yet to come into his own. Much more in­ter­est­ing is Socha as the cad­dish Knave, whose mo­ti­va­tions for help­ing Alice are con­stantly sus­pect. As for the White Rab­bit, the CGI used to bring him to life may be a lit­tle iffy, but Lith­gow’s voice work with the char­ac­ter is thor­oughly en­joy­able.

The mem­o­rable per­for­mances, how­ever, come from the show’s bad­dies. From the out­set, Won­der­land al­ready seems darker than OUAT, and the vil­lains seem to un­der­score this. An­drews as Ja­far is cold, cal­cu­lat­ing and of­ten quite ter­ri­fy­ing, and his seem­ingly un­lim­ited pow­ers make him a fear­some ad­ver­sary.

The Red Queen, mean­while, is my per­sonal favourite thus far; she was in­tro­duced as a spoilt and bratty beauty who lusts for power, but flash­backs have re­vealed that there is more to the char­ac­ter than meets the eye. Rigby is to­tally de­li­cious in this role, giv­ing the ma­nip­u­la­tive char­ac­ter just the right bal­ance be­tween evil and em­pa­thy.

In terms of vis­ual ap­peal, the show is top-notch, bring­ing Won­der­land to life in all its weird and won­der­ful de­tail (though the same mid­dling CGI qual­ity of OUAT also plagues this one). Cos­tume de­sign, in par­tic­u­lar, is ex­cel­lent – each daz­zling new red out­fit Rigby trots out is wor­thy of eye­candy points.

So far, Won­der­land’s story arc has been solid, though not par­tic­u­larly amaz­ing. One of the show’s ad­van­tages is that, un­like the fairy tales of OUAT, most of the char­ac­ters here do not come with pre-ex­ist­ing back­sto­ries, which al­lows the show a lot of free­dom in imag­in­ing how they came to be who they are.

The Knave’s flash­back in the third episode, For­get Me Not, for in­stance, was both sur­pris­ing and well ex­e­cuted, thanks to the un­ex­pected crossover from OUAT, and I look for­ward to more such cre­ative sto­ry­telling for the show’s other char­ac­ters.

Sur­pris­ingly, where the show re­ally drops the ball is in mak­ing full use of the idea of Won­der­land it­self. While char­ac­ters such as the Cater­pil­lar, the Ban­der­snatch and the Cheshire Cat have made ap­pear­ances, th­ese were merely one-offs and don’t seem to play a big part in the main plot.

Given that the main char­ac­ters of the show have al­ready been es­tab­lished, it doesn’t seem likely that any other denizens of Won­der­land are go­ing to be any­thing more than pe­riph­eral play­ers – which is rather dis­ap­point­ing. And the fact that nei­ther the Mad Hat­ter nor the Queen Of Hearts seem likely to play a big part in the show, since their sto­ries have al­ready been told in OUAT, is un­der­stand­able but still a let­down, given how in­te­gral they are to the Won­der­land mythol­ogy (and how big an im­pact the char­ac­ters had in OUAT).

So if you’re a Car­roll purist, you may want to skip Won­der­land; if, how­ever, you en­joyed the reimag­in­ing that OUAT brought to fairy tales, you may find fall­ing down this par­tic­u­lar rab­bit hole quite en­joy­able in­deed.

Once Upon A Time in Won­der­land airs ev­ery Tues­day on Star World (Astro Ch 711/HD Ch 722) at 10.35pm. Send feed­back to en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my.

in a padded cell: alice (So­phie Lowe) re­ceiv­ing a more-or-less wel­come visit from the cad­dish Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha), who has ques­tion­able mo­tives for help­ing her.

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