Once Upon a Time in Wonderland Is the Best Spin-Off You've Never Seen

We all know about my many issues with ABC's 2010 Once Upon a Time series, namely that it has been going on for far too long. In 2013, a spin-off series was released, entitled Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. This one-off series was half the length of a single season of Once Upon a Time and was superior in every way possible. It followed the adventures of a grown-up Alice who fell in love with a handsome young genie from Agrabah. This series is the reason I was so upset that the latest season of Once Upon a Time recast a new mischievous and morally questionable Alice. The Alice I grew to love from the spin-off was everything I could possibly want from a modern-day warrior princess with a penchant for daydreaming. Wonderland is a powerful adventure that is full of passion, romance, and fantasy. I was pleased to find that the series is still available to watch in full on its official website.

Upon watching the pilot again, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the story was revealed in the first episode alone. The original Once Upon a Time would spend full episodes showing characters talk about what was going to happen later in the season and the events that led up to where they are now without anything actually moving forward in the episode. Wonderland is different. The story moves forward at a brisk pace from beginning to end. Each episode is packed to the brim with action, adventure, and shocking revelations. In the first episode, we see Alice as a little girl returning home from Wonderland to her father, who thinks she has gone mad. When she grows up, she journeys back to Wonderland, searching for proof to bring home to her father. What she finds instead is a genie's bottle, which she climbs into in her shrunken state. There, she meets Cyrus, the genie who she falls in love with. When she returns to England, she is institutionalized with a broken heart, thinking that Cyrus was killed by the Red Queen. The doctor in charge of handling her mental state seems to enjoy tormenting her about her broken heart. She is about to undergo a procedure that would erase all of her memories of Cyrus and Wonderland when her friend Will Scarlet, the "Knave of Hearts," tells her that Cyrus is still alive. The two return to Wonderland to look for him, and that's only the first half of the episode.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is quite possibly the most romantic story I have ever seen. Alice and Cyrus have immediate chemistry when they find each other in the bottle. When she met him, she was being chased down by the Red Queen's army. Unsure of whether she can trust Cyrus, she threatens to eat a mushroom that will make her grow larger and destroy his bottle from the inside. Instead of fighting Alice, Cyrus welcomes her to his home, assuring her that no harm will come to her. She immediately lets her guard down, and it is clear that the two are taken by each other. Cyrus is extremely charming and protective of Alice. It is difficult to see him as anything other than polite and kind until his backstory is revealed much later. We see that Alice truly does bring out the best in him and vice versa. He is Alice's strength. Upon the very mention of his name, she is able to single-handedly defeat every guard in the mental institution. Their love for each other is contagious. I found myself falling for Cyrus just as quickly as Alice and felt just as determined to find him again.

The concept of a character going on a long quest to rescue their true love is one that most commonly takes place in video games, and it is almost always about a man taking a journey to rescue a woman. Wonderland reverses that archetype. It isn't the first time that a princess rescued her prince. Ariel is famous for saving Eric from drowning, and Belle broke the Beast's curse. However, the concept of a woman going on a long journey to save a man has almost never been done before, with the exception of the original story of "The Snow Queen," a concept that Disney chose not to reproduce in Frozen. Frozen also failed to promote the message that a man and a woman can go on an adventure together without forcing a romantic connection, as opposed to Wonderland, where Alice and Will are clearly just friends. Will helps Alice on her quest to find Cyrus because he owes her a favor for helping him in the past. The two do get closer and learn more about each other along the way, but that closeness does not lead to any sort of romance between them, as they both already have partners of their own from whom they had been separated. The series serves as a refreshing reminder that a man and woman can, indeed, work together and be friends without hormones getting in the way.

The Red Queen, Anastasia, was a very interesting villain, possibly even more so than Regina from Once Upon a Time. Unlike Regina, who was calculating, vengeful, and patient, Anastasia was selfish, reckless, and vain. Unlike most fairy tale villains, she had no agenda to hurt others. The Red Queen was obsessed with self-preservation and was willing to do whatever it took to stay alive, without considering the consequences. She had a poise and elegance to her that made her fascinating to watch in action. When her connection to Will was revealed later in the series, she became more of a tragic figure who we wanted to root for than a villain we loved to hate. Like Alice, she was lost from her love, but in an emotional way instead of a physical one. In the end, it turned out that she was merely a pawn of Jafar, the real villain of the series, who also had a fascinating backstory, even if it did not necessarily mesh perfectly with Disney's Aladdin.

Every so often, a story comes along that is so powerful and moving that you feel as if you are a part of it yourself. In 2013, that was Once Upon a Time in Wonderland for me. I sympathized so much with Alice's love for Cyrus that it was torment waiting from week to week to find out when they would finally be reunited. The concept of a non-magical woman going through numerous perils to rescue a magical but helpless man was incredibly empowering to me. As disappointed as I am with the new season of Once Upon a Time, I will always be grateful that this series exists because of it.


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