Disney spent decades establishing its brand with movie adaptations of fairy tales and folk legends long before the idea of a shared cinematic universe even existed. But before Marvel changed the movie industry forever, Disney created a multiverse of its own in the form of an ABC series that's way better than you might remember.
Once Upon a Time, a cult Disney television show that brought Disney's many popular characters to live-action to mix and mingle, is the fantasy series you need to binge before it leaves Netflix on September 6.
Created by Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, Once Upon a Time is a 2011-2018 crossover of popular Disney stories, as well as other characters from Grimm tales, fantasy folklore, legends, mythology — and in Season 4, Frozen. Think of it as a reverse Crisis on Infinite Earths: Disparate legends inhabit a shared universe, but with Disney instead of superheroes.
Though Snow White, Prince Charming, the Evil Queen, Robin Hood (as a human, not a fox) and more populate the show, the heart of Once Upon a Time lies in two original characters: Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a bail bond agent in Boston, and her adolescent son, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore, now an Overwatch streamer). Early on, Henry tells Emma he believes fairy tales aren't just real, he's living with them in Storybrooke, a scenic but small New England town. When Emma sticks around, she learns there's truth to Henry's imagination, as princesses, dwarves, and big bad wolves manifest as teachers, construction workers, and diner waitresses — all with no memory of their lives before.
Horowitz and Kitsis' creative DNA, as demonstrated in Lost, run rampant throughout Once Upon a Time. (There is also plenty of curious resemblance to Bill Willingham's Fables, though Willingham doesn't mind the similarities.) The show's many mysteries and teeny connections got fans on early 2010s Tumblr to buzz over theories and plot points. And yes, the 'ships. Oh, the 'ships. It was too perfect that a real fishing village in Vancouver was the filming location for Storybrooke. In 2020, the elements that defined Once Upon a Time are now standard issue for any TV show worth its salt, but Once followed in the tradition of Lost and Heroes to make it fun.
The show's mysteries are its tools. But the magic of Once Upon a Time is its sincerity. Seven seasons of the show's cheesy and sweet moments are powerful enough to threaten high cholesterol. But once you accept that Once Upon a Time is at its core a modern fairy tale, it becomes a touch easier to watch. (Friendly advice: Do not make a drinking game out of every time Snow White says "true love." You will die.)
Premiering on ABC in 2011, the same fall of the Occupy movement, Horowitz and Kitsis purposefully set out to create a show that was about "hope." "We just felt like there was so much darkness in the world, and every character [on TV] was either cynical or very bleak," said Horowitz in a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "And we thought, 'Oh, man. I wish there was some wish fulfillment and some hope.' And that's where we started."
Added Kitsis, "We didn't write the show thinking it was a family show. We wanted to write it like a summer movie, which now, when I think about it, is something you go to with your family."
Once Upon a Time is magical, but far from perfect. Starting out as a restrained reinterpretation of fairy tales that prioritized character and plot, it didn't take long for Once Upon a Time to veer astray with soap opera dramatics, unwieldy stakes, and reckless over-expansion of scope. Oddball romantic pairings, like Emma with an absurdly hot Captain Hook (Colin O'Donaghue) eclipsed focus. Universes like Arthurian tales, Victorian England, and gothic horror come duct-taped, while the exclusion of non-white, non-European mythologies is glaring. (Mulan and Aladdin get brief arcs compared to those of Frozen.) The final season, a soft reboot that jumps forward in time with Andrew J. West as an adult Henry, is Once burning off fumes left in the tank.
But Once Upon a Time still has a lot going for it years later. Namely, it's its strong ensemble cast that includes overqualified leads like Lana Parilla (as the Evil Queen), Ginnifer Woodwin (as Snow White), and Robert Carlyle (as redeemed villain Rumplestiltskin). The show's many hunks like Josh Dallas, Colin O'Donoghue, Jamie Dornan, and Sean Maguire as Robin Hood — who took over from Lucifer's Tom Ellis, of all people — are enough to fill a beefcake calendar.
And then there are the surprising faces: The Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan, was the Mad Hatter in yet another needlessly hot reboot. iZombie alums Rose McIver and David Anders both had not-insignificant stints. Jamie Chung was the first live-action Mulan years before the delayed movie. Actor/activist Rose McGowan had an episode.
Once Upon a Time begins as a gust of fresh air until it just spins its wheels. In its plucking of familiar stories, you can't help but distract yourself thinking what Disney stories they didn't adapt than the ones it did. (To my mind, the show is a missed opportunity for a live-action Gargoyles.) But there's still a lot to like, and maybe love, in Storybrooke.
Once Upon a Time is streaming on Netflix until September 6.