Disney’s ‘Once Upon a Time’: Family, Identity and Fairy Tales

Themes and Observations from Season 1

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Disney’s “Once Upon a Time” and plan to, I urge you to bookmark this page and come back after you watch the first season. It’s easy to binge watch as a television show that melds fantasy and reality into a coherent, if complicated, story.

An apple held out in a hand
An apple held out in a hand

The Evil Queen’s Curse

Disney’s “Once Upon a Time” on Disney Plus starts with a very disturbing premise: The Evil Queen creates a curse to send all of the fairy tale characters to a place where there are no happy endings… modern-day Maine in the United States of America. With 2020 dropping bombs on the American public and no leadership available to right the ship, “Once Upon a Time” may seem prescient in its supposition. However, the first episode was aired in 2011, which means this little-illuminated commentary on the state of America was meant for some of the country’s most recent best days. America is a prison for these fairy tale characters, and it’s a place with no happy endings. It’s a premise few people have talked about, and that’s a shame.

The recognition that the American Dream is no longer what it was by a corporation like Disney is incredibly profound, especially in a time when a majority had hope for a better future. Walt Disney is a prime example of what the American Dream is. After filing for bankruptcy in Kansas City and fleeing his creditors, he had $40 and a half reel of film to his name. He partnered with his brother to create Disney Bros. Studios, which became the mega-media company of today. It would seem that Walt had his happy ending in 1966 when he died, or in 1971 when his brother finished building Walt Disney World, or possibly as late as 1994 when the town Celebration was founded.

The Movie Curse’s Echo

The Evil Queen does the same thing she did in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” She creates a spell that delivers her into the place she didn’t want to be. In the 1937 movie, the Evil Queen hates Snow White because Snow is “the fairest in the land.” The Queen wants to be the most beautiful woman in her kingdom, so she allows her emotions to defeat her logic and crafts a potion that will turn her into an ugly hag. She has to become ugly to become the “fairest.” Unfortunately, she dies in her ugly state that some would say is a representation of her insides.

In “Once Upon a Time,” the Evil Queen tells her father that she just wants to be happy. She then kills him and sacrifices his heart to create a curse that will send everyone, including herself, to a place where there are no happy endings. She kills the one person she loves (after having sacrificed a beloved steed to no avail), the one person who could help her become happier, so that she could make everyone miserable. She fails to realize that if the place truly has no happy endings, there will be no happy endings for her either. In both instances, she is caught up in her emotional needs, which blind her to the consequences of what she is doing to her reality.

Family Finds Each Other

Snow White and Charming tell each other throughout the series “I will always find you.” There’s an entire episode dedicated to Hansel and Gretel finding their father. However, this theme of finding family starts with the first episode when Henry shows up on his Emma’s doorstep in Boston.

This meeting between mother and son sets the tone for the entire season, and it isn’t the only parent/son reunion. For one, brief, shining moment, it seems as if Bae has come to StoryBrooke to find his father Rumpelstiltskin. When the deception is revealed, it sets up an opportunity for Pinocchio to find his father, even if Geppetto doesn’t recognize his boy.

Emma, herself, is looking for her parents. She can’t accept the reality of who they are, just as they don’t know who they are, but that doesn’t change the fact that she wants to find out why she was abandoned.

Cinderella and her child are reunited with her prince. Grumpy is reunited with his fairy love interest. Family always finds each other.

Even the Evil Queen seeks a reunion with her father. She double crosses the Mad Hatter in Wonderland to bring her father back to the Enchanted Forest. In Storybrooke, during the same episode, the hatter is longing to be closer to his daughter, who forgot him when the curse took hold of the fairytale characters. The Hatter is one of three characters that remembers who he is.

A Different Kind of Curse

Just as the characters are trapped in Storybrooke, some are also trapped because they give their love to the wrong person. The Magic Mirror, a newspaper man in the cursed town, wasn’t always an enchanted looking glass. He was the genie of the lamp, and after being wished free by Snow White’s father, he falls in love with the Evil Queen. She uses him to get what she wants and discards him like a piece of garbage. In spite of knowing that “1001 wishes” have ended badly, the genie makes his last wish to be forever close to the Queen. He gets trapped in the mirror realm.

Belle, on the other hand, loves Rumpelstiltskin, but when she realizes he won’t change for her, she leaves his castle. She doesn’t remain captive to him, but rather falls into the Evil Queen’s clutches and becomes a prisoner in the Queen’s dungeon because of Rumpelstiltskin’s love for her.

Disney Princesses

At least a couple episodes address some of the accusations leveled against Disney’s Princesses. During the ballroom scene, Snow White says she’s proud of Cinderella and how she inspires people. Cinderella says, “All I did was get married.” Snow White says, “You showed women that they can change their situation.” (This particular episode has several call backs to the Cinderella tale.) When the Evil Queen meets Belle on the road, she says something about true love being able to break any curse, but she would never recommend kissing the man who held Belle captive because, “Ew.”

Who Is That?

The television series through the first four episodes is engaging enough, especially if you like solving riddles and playing the “Who Is It?” game. Storybrooke is filled with characters from all the fairy tales, even a few Disney hasn’t made into full-length features. (I’m still trying to figure out who the sheriff is, but don’t tell me!)

The episodes are made up of action from the present and the past as the characters fight to thwart the Evil Queen’s curse in both times. Clearly, they fail in the past, so the expose becomes a way to explain who the new character on the show is. “Hey! It’s Cinderella!”

Through 6 episodes, “Once Upon a Time” is focused on identity. Who is everyone, who were they, and who do they want to be? Cinderella, Jiminy Cricket… You can choose who you want to be. What about Prince Charming? To avoid any spoilers, his identity is profoundly confusing for himself and possibly the audience.

Other Observations

In the first episode, Henry tells Emma about the fairy tale characters come to life. Emma says, “Just because you believe something, doesn’t make it true.” Henry responds, “That’s exactly what makes it true.” I didn’t have a chance to see “Once Upon a Time” during its initial run. I’m glad I get to open up a whole new world now. (When does Jasmine show up? Don’t tell me! Spoilers.)

Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.

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