Once Upon a Time in Wonderland: A Critique

‘Once Upon A Time In Wonderland’, ABC’s problematic ‘Once Upon A Time’ spinoff set in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, does a few things very right but it’s the things that are wrong that set my teeth on edge.  I’m watching, barely, but I’m putting it on notice.  One of the greatest strengths of the show is entwined in one of its singular weaknesses which makes for wildly frustrating viewing.  The strength, thankfully, is Alice herself.  Sophie Lowe is an inspired choice to play Alice.  She is lovely in a very British way - I can’t even explain that but if you watch her in action you’ll instinctively understand what I mean - and embodies very aptly the derring-do and curiosity that made the literary version of Alice so unique.  

“Come, there’s no use in crying like that!” said Alice to herself, rather sharply.  “I advise you to leave off this minute!”  She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears into her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.

Alice the character was bold, impetuous, almost heedless, but marked by a knowledge and courtesy that made her very charming.  She ably befriended all manner of bizarre creatures in Wonderland but didn’t cater to their more extravagant whims without due questioning.  She was a true adventurer in that she very literally threw herself down the rabbit hole and when she emerged in Wonderland simply set about exploring it, making the best out of her new situation in grand form.  She wasn’t trying to get home, exactly; she was alternately motivated by following the White Rabbit out of sheer curiosity, by trying to gain access to a pretty little garden she spied through a keyhole...

“The first thing I’ve got to do,” said Alice to herself, as she wandered about in the wood, “is to grow to my right size again; and the second thing is to find my way into that lovely garden.  I think that will be the best plan.”

... and by simply trying to get anyplace at all.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where --” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“-- so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Alice felt that this could not be denied,

In this, ‘Wonderland’ and Sophie Lowe excel.  This Alice is precisely who you might hope the book Alice would have grown up to become: self-assured, still curious, not easily daunted, and lovely of manner.  But it is Alice that also proves to be the show’s greatest weakness.  Or rather, Alice’s motivation.  This Alice escapes an asylum back in England to return to Wonderland to rescue her lost love, the genie Cyrus.

Before those of you not watching cry foul (“there were no genies in Wonderland”) I must caution you that the ‘Once Upon A Time’ (OUAT) franchise’s conceit and a wide measure of its success rest on the subversion and combining of known fairy tales to create a simultaneously familiar and unexpected landscape.  The characters are all known elements (Snow White, Prince Charming, Mulan, Belle, Rumplestiltskin, Peter Pan) but they do not remain holed up in their own storylines, instead crossing over and influencing one another’s worlds to great (and admittedly sometimes ridiculous) effect.  So ‘Wonderland’ was never going to just be about Alice.  In this Wonderland the Red Queen has allied with Agrabah’s Jafar to secure the wishes Cyrus the genie gave to Alice.  The wishes are both what allowed Cyrus to roam freely at her side so long as she didn’t use them (thus enslaving him once more to the granting of them) and the coveted prize that provide the impetus for the villainy that drove Jafar to imprison Cyrus and the Red Queen to lure Alice back to Wonderland.  Doubtless Aladdin will appear at some point and, if OUAT Original Flavor is any indication, likely more fairy tale peoples besides.  (OUAT’s first season even featured Dr. Frankenstein in a significant role for awhile.)  The cross-pollination of fairy tales isn’t the problem.  The problem is that Alice has been given a romantic drive to her story.  

When Alice was imprisoned in the asylum back in England, it was after leaving Wonderland in the wake of what she believed was Cyrus’ death.  In the asylum she readily denied all knowledge of the fantasy world she previously so staunchly proclaimed the existence of because her heart was broken.  She even signed up for some form of lobotomy to help her forget.  When the Knave appeared to let her know Cyrus was still alive, she gladly raced back to Wonderland to find him.  In the first two episodes she runs hot and cold as she alternates between firm belief in Cyrus’ survival and shattering fears that he no longer loves her.  Her entire drive is to get to him, to reunite with him, to live happily ever after with him (of course), and she is entirely subject to highs and lows according to what she believes his fate is at any given moment.  In time this may even out and it doesn’t necessarily negatively impact the badassery Sophie Lowe is able to embue Alice with: Alice is not only curious but a capable fighter, a cunning negotiator, and duly apt at making her way through Wonderland’s weird landscape.  But she’s not doing it for her own reasons.

The original Alice, while admittedly a child, was driven by the spirit of adventure.  She was a girl who followed her curiosity into another world and, once there, took what came in the spirit of discovery.  She wasn’t motivated either by reuniting with her family (save her cat, Dinah) or some boy she fancied back home.  She was motivated purely by seeing what came next in the adventure.  To a girl like me, reading about Alice was akin to being there myself.  Alice gave me permission to dream big and to forge ahead without hesitation into those dreams.  I didn’t need anybody to guide me or woo me or protect me, I only needed to dream and pursue that dream.  Alice, like Dorothy in Oz and Lucy entering the Wardrobe, gave girls the freedom to realize themselves.  They weren’t motivated by traditional trappings of feminine mores but were something greater than the societal sum of their parts.  They didn’t need men to show them the way though they happily traveled with male friends and brothers.  They existed quite on their own steam.  So to show that sassy-smart Alice grew up to be entirely at the whim of her emotional dependence on a romantic partner is disheartening.

It isn’t that I think romantic love is less than or somehow unworthy as a goal.  It’s simply that romantic love isn’t Alice’s story and it would be so lovely to have a fully-realized female character driven by something other than a man on TV.  Snow White will always be driven by Prince Charming.  Belle will always be driven by the Beast.  They have other virtues, certainly, but love is their story arc.  It isn’t Alice’s.  She could explore romance without making a man’s love her sole goal in Wonderland.  We have enough fairy tale heroines bent on happily ever after with their man.  Can’t we have one who is on her own script?  And there are enough compelling narratives in Alice’s story without creating a genie fiance to coax her back into the world.  Why not have her pursue the proof of her sanity that she initially returned to Wonderland to obtain before she was derailed by Cyrus?  Or explore the Knave’s misdeeds?  Or, hey, work towards the goal of being Queen as she did in “Through the Looking Glass”?

This is the singular most frustrating thing about ‘Once Upon A Time In Wonderland’.  Okay, it’s a tie with the CGI.  The horrendous CGI and Alice’s overarching romantic storyline are the two most frustrating things.  The other characters, at present, just pad out Alice's tale.  I mean Emma Rigby’s Red Queen is suitably coy in her wickedness but Naveen Andrews’ Jafar is utterly ridiculous.  I really cannot get behind John Lithgow as the voice of the White Rabbit no matter how I try but then again the CGI is eyeball-searing so perhaps even Tom Hardy couldn’t save that character for me now.  (Which is too bad because I really love the White Rabbit in the book.  He’s so neurotic.)  Bottom line: I’m watching but I’m not entirely happy about it.  If it weren’t for Sophie Lowe I probably wouldn’t even bother writing this.  She really is full of promise so I hold out hope that ‘Wonderland’ will sort itself out.  Give Alice back to herself, won’t you?  Do it for every girl who ever read “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and dreamed of one day being her. 

- Corinne Simpson