I sit writing this article with the view of serenity. I’m on the front porch of a local coffee shop in the middle of a small-town downtown. Other homegrown business surround it on all sides, with a nearby town square in sight, its beacon a beautiful library. A few people ride by on their bicycles. Others just walk in the street. It’s close enough to my city apartment to be nearby, but far enough away to be an intentional visit. My trip today is with thoughtful purpose. This area of town reminds me of Storybrooke, the fictional town in Maine that is the backdrop of Once Upon a Time. The hit ABC drama is coming to a close after seven seasons, and in reflection of this unique program, there’s no better place to download a look back at its history than the spot that disillusions me, if I imagine with enough might, that I could be on the porch of Granny’s Diner.
Once Upon a Time debuted in October 2011 with great ambition: Interweave beloved fairy tales among one another in a way that tells a larger, shared story. It was a lesser-profiled MCU equivalent, something that came along just on the cusp of Hollywood’s reinvent-every-classic-story era we currently find ourselves in. At the center of its massive tale was Evil Queen casting a curse that wiped the memories of all fairytale characters from the Enchanted Forest and sent them unknowingly into “a land without magic”—ours. Before the curse cast, Snow White and Prince Charming sent their newborn daughter, Emma, ahead, spared of the curse but not knowing anything of her heritage. 28 years after that curse, Emma is confronted with her reality in a town that isn’t aware of its own.
Flashbacks to the Enchanted Forest gave the audience backgrounds of different characters, a filmmaking device that cleverly revealed exposition and surprises throughout the entire series. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs often remained at the show’s center, but most Grimm fairy tales were brought in eventually. With Disney as ABC’s parent company, the program had full authority to infuse the Disney Animation versions of these stories, too, a thrilling example of synergy that allowed the welcome of The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog, and even Frozen onto primetime television in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
While Once Upon a Time was mostly honoring of the legacy it knew it carried, sometimes the Disney connection perhaps got a bit too carried away. I consider myself a diehard of this show. I’ve always loved it, and think it’s incredible that we literally had a primetime drama about Disney characters for seven years. At times, though, one couldn’t help but make a loving eye roll or affectionate head shake when Once Upon a Time embraced its Disney roots in over-the-top ways. Certainly after seven years, the characters not used became fewer and fewer, and creativity had to be prodded. The show’s seventh (and ultimately final) season was a reboot of sorts, jumping the story ahead decades and introducing the idea of “carbon copies,” multiple versions of the same character. It gave the narrative heightened intrigue, but did hint at desperation… and at times gave way to even more “What the heck?” ideas. Laced with an inordinate amount of love and tribute, here are the top “I can’t believe they did that” Once Upon a Time Disney moments.
(For everything except the series finale.)
10. Peter Pan Is Beast’s Father, Season 3
This twist in and of itself was brilliant within the context of the story. Peter Pan is Rumplestiltskin’s dad, and we never knew it this whole time? Woah! But when thinking about the animated counterparts these characters represent, things get a little ridiculous. Imagine Disney’s animated Peter Pan being the dad of Disney’s animated Beast… creepy! Another example that comes to mind in this same vein is the clever twist of Lady Tremaine also being Rapunzel… especially with their relationships to towers! So, to be clear, for this one, actual execution: Amazing. Thinking about what it would mean for the Disney canon: Eye roll.
9. Haunted Mansion, Season 7
The title card for that week’s episode was Madame Leota’s crystal ball, and I immediately let out a cry of despair. “WHY?!?” Actually, it turned out pretty nice. But the idea of bringing Haunted Mansion into the the show was clearly a sign of scraping the bottom of the barrel. If it had been infused into the series earlier, I think we might have even seen some other Disney theme park attractions make their way into the show. (Imagine Pirates of the Caribbean.) Regardless, the inclusion of Haunted Mansion was more tasteful than expected, its use of script from the attraction’s Ghost Host perhaps cringey but at least predictable. The best part? A plush monkey hidden in the set, a nod to the Hong Kong Disneyland version of the attraction.
8. Mickey Mouse, Season 4
While not explicitly identified as Mickey, there is a character on the show known at the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In one episode when the Apprentice is magically cursed, he turns into a mouse. And thankfully that’s as far as that thread was pursued. (Along similar lines, in the seventh season, we’re told a town caterer is named Remy. Come on.)
7. Maui’s Fishhook, Season 7
“Ok, now they’re just being silly.” That’s what I said when Captain Hook was told the weapon he needed to seek was none other than (dramatic pause…) MAUI’S FISHHOOK. Dun dun DUN! While Maui himself (nor anyone from Moana) never made an appearance on the show, I wouldn’t put it past them. Maui’s fishhook on the show looked identical to its film counterpart. I’m just glad they didn’t go ham and actually bring Maui into it. As much fun as that could be, it also could’ve been a disaster.
6. Wreck-It Ralph, Season 7
As you can tell, by the seventh season, the show just threw things into the breeze and didn’t pay mind judgment from anyone. And hey, I admire that. But that didn’t stop me from giving a MASSIVE eye-roll when Victoria Belfrey picked up the phone, menacingly and dramatically, and says into it without a hint of irony in her voice, “Yes, Ralph! I’ve got a job for you. Something needs wrecking.” Uuuugggggghhhhh. (Again, thankfully Ralph wasn’t included beyond that because oh em gee can you imagine.)
5. All. The. Frozen. Quotes. Season 4
While it divided many fans, I personally was a huge fan of the Frozen arc in the fourth season. It got a little too kitschy for me at times, though, whenever it blatantly forced quotes from the Frozen script into its dialogue. “It’s freezing. Aren’t you cold?” “It never bother me.” …. “I packed you lunch.” “Oh, wow! I love sandwiches!” …. “Where are you going?” (dramatic pause) “Why… I’m going to build a snowman.” Gracious. (Unrelated but also in the same season, can we take a moment to appreciate but also roll eyes at Warlord Bo Peep?)
4. Belle and Beast do “Married Life,” Season 7
“Hmm, this seems familiar. Wait, I think this is familiar on purpose. Are they…? They’re not. They would not. Wait. They are. They ARE. For real? [skull emoji]” These were my thoughts as I realized what was materializing before my very eyes during a sequence meant to emulate the “Married Life” montage from Pixar’s Up. As Belle and Rumple grow old together, their life in a colorful home at some cliffs by a water fall is accentuated by turn-of-the-century music in a sequence that ultimately leads to Belle’s death. While the sentiment is there, the eye-roll factor prompts some major groanage. Another doozie? The fact that this means Rumplestiltskin, Beast, Tick Tock Crocodile, and Carl Fredricksen are all the same character!
3. Wandering Oaken, Season 4
2. The Musical Episode, Season 6
Do I even need to explain myself?
1. Walt Disney, Season 4
“The Author” was a figure introduced in the fourth season as a mystical job handed down from generation to generation as the curator of classic fairytale stories. When the concept of the Author’s powers is introduced, August mentions that the title once belong to “a man named Walt.” While it doesn’t take much guessing to figure out who that might be within this context, confirmation was given in a later episode when we saw a flashback to December 1966, when news came of that era’s Author having just passed away. Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966. Meaning that Once Upon a Time included Walter Elias Disney as a character within its narrative. [facepalm] [facepalm] [facepalm] [but also ouat ily]