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Once Upon a Time in Wonderland: TV review

This ABC fairy tale spin-off is all spectacle and no substance.

Sophie Lowe stars in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland on ABC

With Once Upon a Time, creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis have bundled countless characters from classic literature including Grimm's Fairy Tales, Frankenstein and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In this spin-off, which shares only a brief connection with its sister show, they continue to weave fairy tale worlds together by introducing characters from Disney's Aladdin into a version of Carroll's Wonderland. Much like its predecessor, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland struggles to convey the fantastical on a TV budget.

In a plot reminiscent of Return to Oz, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland finds a grown up Alice (Sophie Lowe) detained in an asylum. Thanks to years of ranting about her adventures down the rabbit hole, her family has her committed. After Alice's initial trip to the fantasy world as a child, she returned as a teen in an attempt to bring back proof to her father that she wasn't delusional. On this second journey, she met Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), a genie who lives in a bottle. In addition to granting her wishes, Cyrus and Alice fell in love. In a confrontation with Wonderland's Red Queen (Emma Rigby), Cyrus meets his end by falling off a cliff towards the Boiling Sea, leading to the heartbroken and institutionalized Alice we meet at the beginning. However, it seems that Cyrus may be alive, and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) and the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) are on a mission to break Alice out of the asylum, to bring her back to Wonderland to find her true love.

One frequent problem of Once Upon a Time is the use of flashback scenes to a fairy tale universe that challenges the meager visual effects budget. One of the worst instances: an episode in which the Mad Hatter returned to a Wonderland composed entirely of green screens. It seems odd then that with this spin-off, Horowitz and Kitsis willingly return repeatedly to that same shoddy world. Aside from the digitally created White Rabbit, much of the finished effects in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (many were still labeled unfinished on the screener, despite it being uploaded early this week) leave something to be desired. It's hard to buy into Alice's adventures when so much of what surrounds her looks like an intangible painting.

Lowe does her best to sell Alice's commitment to Cyrus through tears, but a pair of scenes showing the couple's meeting and betrothal do little to sell them as a match, especially when she has far more screen-time and chemistry with Socha's Knave. She's a scrappy heroine who deserves a more interesting lover. Rigby is joined by Naveen Andrews as Jafar, and the two make for a pair of extremely dull villains who do little but glower and plot behind closed doors. They do nothing to add life to Alice's quest to find Cyrus, which is just a lame excuse to run into characters and obstacles from the Carroll-verse.

Despite impressive turns from Lowe and Socha (the way the word "Wonderland" sounds through his Yorkshire accent is one of the show's high points), Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a disappointment, focusing more on the chintzy tableau of the candy-colored Wonderland than on giving its actors anything interesting to do there.

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