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3.5 stars
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Overall Grade
3.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4 Stars
HD Video Quality
4 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
2.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
1 Stars
Bottom Line
Worth a Look

Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season

Street Date:
August 28th, 2012
Reviewed by:
High-Def Digest staff
Review Date: 1
September 5th, 2012
Movie Release Year:
2011
Studio:
Disney/Buena Vista
Length:
946 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

'Once Upon a Time' is a soapy, adventurous twist on our culture's classic fairytales. So furious Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) found their happy ending, the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) curses them, and everyone in the fairytale realm, to a world where there are no happy endings. Namely, our world...in the form of Storybrooke, Maine. Everyone in the odd town, from the Mayor (the Evil Queen) to the Sheriff (the Huntsman) to the Bed and Breakfast owner (Granny), psychiatrist (Pinnochio), and pawnshop owner (Rumplestilskin) is a classic fairytale character stuck frozen in time and, other than the Queen/Mayor, they don't remember who they were and often, tragically, who they loved.

However, there is one person destined to save them all (in the last episode of the last season). Snow White and Prince Charming's daughter, Emma (Jennifer Morrison) who was the only person unaffected by the Queen's curse. She grew up in our world, bouncing from foster home to foster home, gave up a baby for adoption when she was 18, and eventually became a bounty hunter. On her 28th birthday, the baby boy she gave away, Henry, shows up at her apartment, rambling about her needing to save his town. To release the fairytale characters from their unending prison.

After Emma brings Henry home and meets his mother (the Mayor/Evil Queen), she decides to get to know the boy and, by way of a few contrivances, stays in Storybrooke hoping to uncover the truth behind the strange town. That's half the narrative. A small town, soapy drama with a hint of police procedural. People go missing. Mysteries arise. Town politics. Secrets. Scandals. A coma patient love triangle. At the center is Emma confronting the Mayor, who like any mother who adopts a child, is terrified to see her son with her birth mother on a daily basis.

The other half of the narrative unfolds in the fairytale realm. Like the first season of 'Lost', the pilot focuses on "how everyone arrived in Storybrooke" (instead of a plane crash, we have a curse), and then subsequent "flashbacks" jump around from various origin stories and different parts of Snow White and Prince Charming's love story -- which is not at all what you've seen before.

'Once Upon a Time' was created by writing partners Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, who are best known for their work on 'Lost' as well as 'Tron: Legacy'. From what I've read, the writers had been cooking up this idea before their years on mysterious island, but they were only able to set it up thanks to having a hit series under their belts and a burgeoning fairytale trend riding the heals of billion dollar movies like Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland'.

'Once' is an odd mixture. There are so many different elements, with each main character actually portraying two roles (with some thematic overlay, of course), it must be a beast to produce and create. But it's oddly addictive. Like a good book, even when it's not perfect, you can't really put it down. My favorite sections in season one are the fairytale stories. Pinnochio and Rumplestiltskin's origin stories floored me with their heartbreaking twists on the characters we think we know. Robert Carlye (as Mr. Gold / Rumplestiltskin) may, in fact, be the best part about the show. With every episode, we learn more about the characters; and the more complex they are drawn, the more we care, and the more I can't wait to see what happens next week.

The real world -- the Storybrooke, Maine -- component seems to be a bit more challenging to wrangle. To keep Emma in town, the first half of the season feels a little contrived, but given the fact that it's a magical town where time once stopped (it starts again when Emma decides to stay) and the town's people can't physically leave, I suppose it's okay if it doesn't feel "real world" in terms of governance and law. It's forgivable, but as the show goes on, less and less important is "how" Emma came to the town, but more the "why" -- not to save the characters from their permanent happy endings, because that sounds crazy, but because she is a woman without any human connections in the world, and now she has a second chance to form a bond with the son she gave away.


What I enjoy most about 'Once Upon a Time' is its lack of cynicism. This show avoids post-modern and look-how-clever-we-are winking. But perhaps it's too naive at times. Perhaps a little extra dose of reality could ground the series even more. Aside from the aforementioned contrivances, 'Once' also suffers from being too ambitious. It wants the scope of a $200 million dollar feature, but more often the CGI sets and creatures are laughably bad.

There are also some issues with pacing, in trying to move all the pieces around. Unlike 'Lost', 'Once' races forward answering all sorts of questions (while raising new ones, of course), but Emma doesn't seem like she has enough to do every week (same with a few other characters, most notably Snow White aka Mary Margaret). That being said, I've heard good things about the series and, thus far, my expectations were exceeded. It might not be 'Game of Thrones'-riveting, but thus is the challenge of producing network television -- 22 or more episodes per season in the same amount of time used to make a cable series with 10-13 episodes.

For fans of fairytales, 'Lost', and other soapy, fantastical, character dramas, 'Once Upon a Time' isn't always perfect, but it's addictive and fun and, especially the fairytale realm components, smartly written. I look forward to watching Season Two as it unfolds week to week, but will miss gorging myself on all 22 episodes in the course of a few days. I think it's easier to overlook minor road bumps when the next stretch of open road lies directly ahead.


The Blu-ray - Vital Disc Stats

'Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season' debuts on Blu-ray as part of a five disc collection that indicates the set will play in Regions A, B, and C. The slipcover embraces the series dual storylines and features a lenticular poster. Disc one trailers include a montage of ABC television dramas and 'Frankenweenie'. Like previous ABC television series collection, Season Play is included here, but I couldn't get it to work. Every time I put a disc back in, or directly traveled to the next disc, it asked if I, Viewer 1, wanted to watch the Pilot (at a time code of 00:00:00). Perhaps there's something wrong with my Blu-ray player, but I don't think so; it has used Season Play many times.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

It must be the fairy dust. 'Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season', with an AVC MPEG-4 framed in its original high definition broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1, looks terrific on Blu-ray. Much better than it does on TV.

'Once Upon a Time' boasts lavish visuals and bright colors. Crimson skies and a warm color palette from the fairy tale realm sparkle in high definition, setting up a nice contrast with the slightly cooler "real world" color palette. Skin tones favor shooting conditions, but seem accurate in the multiple settings. Black levels are nice and shadowy details deep. Resolution is top notch -- perhaps even too much for some of the actresses who can't hide emerging wrinkles from HD. I believe the show is produced in British Columbia, outside of Vancouver, and aside from a few blown out skies (a drawback from shooting video), the mountains and wood settings do feel epic and magical.

However, there are a few poison apples in this presentation. While we're not taking off any marks for the CGI itself, inside the CGI you'll find most of the show's visual blemishes, most notably banding, aliasing, and some pixelization and/or noise. These aren't huge problems, mind you, but more careful viewers may be distracted. There are other moments of noise and pixelization in shots without any special effects; perhaps these are compression bandwidth limitations. Again, not the end of the world, especially considering there is approximately 18 hours of original content on these 5 discs, produced in a short 9-10 months.


The Audio: Rating the Sound

While not as aggressive or dynamic as something like 'Lost', 'Once Upon a Time' provides an energetic audio experience via its English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.

The first two episodes really set a nice sound stage for what's to come. With lightning crashing and approaching curse-storms, your whole system will get a nice workout. LFE is dependable, enhancing sound effects and music. Speaking of which, composer Mark Isham's musical score is feature quality, with emotional themes that sound excellent in lossless audio and take up the entire sound stage. Effects work is strongest when things get loud -- storms or charging horses -- and could be a little be more precise in the front to back surround panning.

My biggest complaint with the track is the dialog. Lossless audio is supposed to match the original master bit-for-bit, and unfortunately this highlights a few audio production flaws. Namely, I believe we can hear differences between production dialog (recorded on set, live) and ADR (recorded later, if the production audio is too noisy). An audible hiss appears, rising in and out of conversations. It's barely noticeable, but there.


The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

'Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season' includes a nice set of special features, including 5 audio commentaries, deleted scenes, and a few short documentaries.

  • Audio Commentaries. Five commentaries are available on the following episodes: Co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz open up things on the 'Pilot'. Co-stars Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Harris take on '7:15 AM'. Writer/Consultant Jane Espenson and actor Robert Carlyle discuss 'Skin Deep'. Actress Lana Parrilla (Queen / Mayor) joins Kitsis and Hororwitz for 'The Stable Boy'. And last, but not least, the creators invite actress Jennifer Morrison to comment on 'A Land Without Magic'
  • Fairy Tales in the Modern World (HD, 21mins). A nice documentary about the series' influences and origins, it features the show's creators as well as lots of cast and crew interviews and making-of footage.
  • Building Character (HD, 7mins). There's some overlap here with the commentaries, but this too-brief featurette interviews the co-creators about how they adapted the classics into their show.
  • The Story I Remember: Snow White (HD, 4mins). Cast members discuss how they remember Snow White's fairytale.
  • Welcome to Storybrooke (HD, 7mins). Once upon a time there was a small town in British Columbia...then Hollywood came to town.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD). There are nine deleted scenes to watch, entitled: Meet Rumplestiltskin, Cradle, Regina's Sheriff, Motherly Love, Responsibility, Blood is Thick, Waste of Time, Bull's Eye, and I'm Your Friend Too.
  • The Fairest Bloopers of Them All (HD, 2mins). A montage of things that are much funnier to the people who were there.
  • Once Upon A Time Orchestral Suite (HD, 4mins). Film score lovers will enjoy this highlight of Mark Isham's music.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There is one HD exclusive to the Blu-ray release:

  • Once Upon A Time Origins (HD). Actor Josh Dallas hosts a look at the, well, origins behind the classic stories found in the show. Included are Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Rumpelstiltskin.

Easter Eggs

Thanks to HDD Reader, Marc Richardson, for these two Easter Egg tips, both found on Disc 5:

1. With EPISODES highlighted, press DOWN. After a dot appears in the "O", hit ENTER to see a featurette (HD, 1:47) about Prince Charming's sword fight in the "Pilot".

2. With SEASON PLAY highlighted, press DOWN. After a dot appears in the "O", hit ENTER to see a procession of all the fairy tale characters who attended Snow White's wedding (HD, 1:38) in the "Pilot".

Final Thoughts

'Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season' is a bit clunky at first, but for those who put in a little effort, the experience is exciting as well as addicting. I look forward to following the show's sophomore season when it returns to primetime this fall. As a Blu-ray, it absolutely crushes the broadcast viewing experiences, with bold colors, endless resolution, and a strong soundtrack. However, there is some terrible CGI, instances of pixelization, banding, and noisy-dialog issues. The special features are nice, but not as good as some series sets. If you're a fan of the show, and wish to revisit this season again and again, you'll really enjoy this set for its improvements over what broadcast, cable, and satellite companies call "HD". If you're looking for a twisty, soap, drama series to fall in love with, you might want to give this flawed-but-fun series a try.

Technical Specs

  • 50GB Blu-ray Discs
  • 5-Disc Set

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.78:1

Audio Formats

  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH

Supplements

  • Fairy Tales in the Modern World
  • Building Character
  • Welcome to Storybrooke!
  • The Story I Remember... Snow White
  • The Fairest Bloopers of Them All
  • Nine Deleted Scenes
  • Five Episode Commentaries

Exclusive HD Content

  • Once Upon a Time: Origins