It’s a good time to be a fan. Of what, you ask? Of anything. Fan culture—that idea of loving a project collectively as a supportive body—is acknowledged, celebrated, and catered to today in the entertainment industry as it never was before. Often utilizing its Disney-affiliated synergy, ABC is a network currently blasting headfirst into fan culture its shows target. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, The Muppets, and even Galavant are all examples of ABC tapping into the concept of a show that can be enjoyed by all, but is more greatly appreciated by a specific niche audience who is aware of the program’s background and history. It’s a technique on the rise, and it was first pioneered by Once Upon a Time, which embraces its Comic-Con crowd in all its glory for a jam-packed fourth season now arriving on Blu-ray.
In this case, that niche group is Disney fans and animation addicts: people whose childhoods were rooted in fairytales and who esteem those stories’ characters. The subject matter is almost revered, and as we come to find throughout the Blu-ray set of Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fourth Season, this reverence is something the entire cast and crew is well aware of. The new collection gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the story development process and, of course, offers the chance to relive the show’s most fan-centric season yet (and also its most multilayered). Divided into two halves telling two concrete stories, the season handles this multilayering very differently. First, as enjoyably intricate and then as maddeningly complex. Because of this separation of theme and filmmaking approach, it’s only fair to review each half of the season separately.
Whenever new, temporary characters are introduced to Once Upon a Time, they work best if they are able to provide the permanent cast with more depth. The Frozen crew does this for Emma, but at the same time brings forth an entirely new story that has roots in the original Snow Queen tale.
The Frozen characters are utilized in both the present day Storybrooke plot and the flashback sequences. In a move unique to this season, the flashbacks stick with the same characters for the entire arc and air sequentially, creating what ultimately amounts to a live-action Frozen mini-series. If you’ve had enough of the Frozen train, this doesn’t bode well. But if you’re open to the idea of more, it’s a riveting ride. Focusing so much on one specific property (and admittedly spotlighting the regular cast minimally) isn’t something that should happen every season, but as a one-time event at the peak of Frozen‘s unprecedented popularity it’s representative of a special moment in animation history. The story, taking place two years after Frozen, involves Anna leaving Arendelle on a quest to discover why her parents took the voyage that ended in their deaths. She eventually meets Ingrid, a woman with Elsa’s same icy powers who shares a mysterious link to Anna and Elsa’s past. Meanwhile in Storybrooke, Elsa’s arrival leads to newfound revelations about herself and Emma.
With Frozen being such a recent release, Once doesn’t so much reinvent the story as it does continue it, and the same is true of the characters’ personalities. Anna and Elsa are direct interpretations of their film counterparts rather than altered twists as the program did before with a few familiar characters. They are cast to a tee, with Elizabeth Lail exemplifying Anna’s exuberance and Georgina Haig embodying Elsa’s prestige with expertise. Scott Michael Foster as Kristoff similarly presents an authentic translation of the screen character. Additionally, the nature of the characters’ dialogue brings a sense of whimsy and comedic timing that is sometimes inherently absent in Once and, for the most part, is welcome (except when it plays off of eye-roll-worthy Frozen references). Elizabeth Mitchell’s performance as Ingrid brings a compelling new element into the Frozen infrastructure in a way that almost makes me wish Disney Animation would use this same idea for Frozen 2. It’s that good. The only gripe in terms of content is that Elsa seems to have learned nothing from Frozen. Her character is right back where she was before: fearful of herself. The explanation is her separation from Anna, but that element of the story feels like retrodden territory.
As a whole, the Frozen arc is intriguing, well-paced, and wonderfully character-driven. This half of the season has enough intent direction that rewatching its episodes is an enlightening rediscovery of elements I missed on television. “Shattered Sight” is by far the standout episode, though all do an admirable job at celebrating Frozen while simultaneously staying grounded in Once.
Queens of Darkness ✮✮
The same cannot be said for the season’s second half, initially marketed as “Queens of Darkness” but then titled as different variations of “Heroes and Villains” and “Dark Emma.” In a nutshell, that sentence is indicative of the the entire half-season: too many things going on at once with no clear thread or reason to care. Maleficent, Ursula, and Cruella De Vil are introduced as the primary baddies at first, but quickly become just one item in a huge assemblage of new characters and storylines added to the show quickly.
Many returning faces are brought back for reappearances in these episodes. On one hand, it is great to see them, and the flashbacks relating to a completely different set of characters each episode feels a lot like Once‘s universally acclaimed first season. On the other hand, each time a friend (or foe) returns, they bring with them an unnecessary new complication to the story. After a while, it’s difficult to keep track of everything, and the show feels like it’s bringing in all these different characters to fish for viewers rather than to service the story that’s already being told. It doesn’t help that the series already has a pretty big cast as it is, so the more guest stars that come on board for a week or two at a time means there’s even less screen time for the permanent cast (already stretched thin by themselves). It’s multilayered, but obnoxiously so.
Bonus Features ✮✮✮1/2
As a fan-driven series, this Blu-ray set caters to those who want to go deeper into the storytelling aspect of the show. Yes, we see a bit of the practical, filmmaking side of things, but the main focus of the bonus material is story, and it reaches a level of depth that few Blu-rays attempt. For a show with such multi-faceted (and, not to mention, iconic) characters, it is a fan’s dream come true to get such thorough access to the development of each beat of the story. This is expertly achieved in the set’s best quality, its collection of audio commentaries (which are exclusive to Blu-ray and not available on the DVD counterpart). Five episodes dispersed throughout the season have commentaries, and its refreshing to hear from a range of talent, including writers, actors, and directors. The most rewarding is “A Tale of Two Sisters,” the season premiere with commentary from creators/writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and actress Jennifer Morrison. It’s a delightful time that not only acts as a 42-minute character study of Emma, but also discusses in detail the challenge of bringing Frozen to the show. Morrison radiates with passion for the show and her character. The other commentaries are of equal value, except for the disposable “Poor Unfortunate Soul” with director Steve Pearlman and actor Colin O’Donoghue (Hook), who are often silent and surprisingly bland (which is odd given how much their colleagues praise them both elsewhere on the disc). It would have been great to hear a commentary with the Frozen character actors, though none is present.
On top of the commentaries there is roughly an hour of additional bonus material, ranging from worthwhile to weird. Deleted scenes are abundant and superb, the most entertaining of which shows a frazzled Snow White worried about leaving infant Neal with babysitter Belle. “Defrosting Frozen” overviews introducing Arendelle to the show, but doesn’t hit on anything huge that the commentary doesn’t detail. In a missed opportunity it also doesn’t include an interview John Lasseter, who reportedly visited the set during the Frozen arc.
A tour of the Canadian set hosted by Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow) and Josh Dallas (Charming) is awkwardly scripted but professionally filmed. Elsewhere, an extremely odd piece entitled “Three Who Stayed” serves as a mockumentary interviewing three random Storybrooke citizens who have never appeared on Once, and one of whom is played by Patton Oswalt. Its existence is confusing and bizarre. Concluding the set is a handful of mediocre bloopers.
This is the season Once Upon a Time fully embraced its Disney heritage, for better and for worse. By integrating a surprisingly large amount of characters (and, new this season, music!) from the vast library of Disney animation history, the show utilizes each personality to such a different extreme that it is difficult to properly assess this collection. However, what it gets right it gets extremely right, making the series worthwhile for any Disney fan.
That being said, watching the show on television is different from purchasing the show on Blu-ray. In the age of streaming and inevitable syndication purchasing an entire physical copy of anything, especially television shows, requires more persuasion than it once did. There are other outlets to access the show (like Netflix, which will likely add this very season within the month), so what’s the advantage of purchasing the Blu-ray? For the casual viewer, there probably isn’t any. For the fan who wants to delve deeper into the creative side of the production, this set offers outstanding insight in its commentaries and deleted scenes. Additionally, the Frozen episodes acting as their own self-contained continuation of the movie push this particular season into becoming a more natural buy. I know I’ll want to go back and rewatch these episode in years to come, even if I don’t watch the entire series all the way through again.
While the CGI may make us cringe on occasion and we might need to take notes to fully understand more than a few episodes, Once Upon a Time as a whole is a show that is easy and gratifying to appreciate, and this set provides the viewer with an even deeper appreciation. Through its extras we grasp the many moving parts that are required to put on a production of this scope, whose characters have such weighted legacies and are held at such a high caliber. That’s the biggest takeaway from this collection, one that I will happily revisit.
Once Upon a Time: The Complete Fourth Season is available August 18.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes