"Once Upon a Time" returns with "Frozen" twist

"Once Upon a Time" returns with "Frozen" twist

When ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” premiered in 2011, it was an instant hit. With ABC’s gradual decline over the past few years, “Once” was poised to become the network’s new “Lost,” an interesting comparison considering that the creators of “Once” were executive producers on the show that essentially saved ABC in 2004 (along with “Desperate Housewives”).

Perhaps the fairy tale charm has worn off for some, as viewership for “Once” has fallen to nearly half of its initial audience. The series premiered to nearly 13 million viewers, but last season’s finale did not even manage to reach 7 million.

While such a drastic drop surely would have cancelled a drama series a decade ago, TV renewal has drastically changed. In the past, 100 episodes was the magic number because it was more appealing for off-network channels who were seeking syndicated shows to rerun. That number is now closer to 88, which makes up four seasons of the average network drama with 22 episodes each season.

Because of this fact, when “Once” was renewed for its third season, it was basically guaranteed a fourth season. Its chances for renewal beyond this point, however, are a bit murkier. More episodes means more money for ABC… but only if the show does well enough in the ratings to attract advertisers who are willing to pay top dollar for commercial spots.

That is where the “Frozen” stunt comes in for “Once.” With such a well known franchise joining the storylines of Storybrooke, the fourth season of “Once” has increased its chances for success. Even though its spinoff, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” immensely flopped, the original show has made a strong, smart move in appealing to such a wide fanbase, the lovers of “Frozen.”

In the season premiere, the show quickly addressed the cliffhanger that stunned viewers last season. Within the last few seconds of the most recent season finale, viewers saw a mysterious blue liquid transform into Elsa, “Frozen”’s misguided queen.

Connecting with that storyline immediately, “Once” in its typical flashback fashion takes viewers to the shipwreck that took the lives of Elsa and her sister Anna’s parents. This half-season’s intrigue is successfully established when the mother writes a message in a bottle and says, “The must know…”

The show flashes forward to present day, showing Elsa mysteriously strut through Storybrooke. Meanwhile, former Evil Queen Regina argues with protagonist Emma, who has unknowingly brought Regina’s boyfriend’s (Robin Hood) wife Marian back to life from the past. Marian originally died at Regina’s command, so she naturally holds a bit of a grudge.

Loyal viewers know that Regina has experienced a fluctuating transformation over the past three seasons, one that could snap back to evil if given the right prod. This sentiment is mirrored in her adopted son Henry’s statement: “You don’t think she’ll become evil again… She can’t! She’s come too far…”

In a flashback, viewers are tuned in to the fact that the “Frozen” storyline in “Once” occurs after the events of the film but are very faithful to the story that “Frozen” presents. This is in contrast to many of “Once”’s other storylines, which have been known to change the events of history drastically. Such a choice is probably not to alienate viewers who love “Frozen” the way it is.

The flashback also reveals that Anna and Elsa find their mother’s dress and journal, the latter of which reveals a dark truth about the voyage that their parents were taking when they died: that they were not going to a diplomatic mission after all. Elsa storms out, saying, “Our parents’ death… it’s all my fault.”

In the present, Rumpelstiltskin visits the grave of his recently killed son, Neal, stating that he killed the last half-season’s villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, as an act of revenge. He also vows to be honest with his new wife, Belle.

When Robin Hood effectively breaks up with Regina, she summons the man from her magic mirror, Sidney (played by Giancarlo Esposito), for help. It is actually really convenient that Esposito’s show “Revolution” was cancelled so that his schedule could be free for a visit back to Storybrooke.

Also convenient is that Belle notices a house in which nobody lives, claiming it as her and Rumpel’s honeymoon spot. Rumpel discovers an unexplained mysterious magical box. Rumpel then suggests a dance, playing the song “Beauty and the Beast” and transforming their attire to a dress and a suit based on the clothing from film’s own famous dance sequence. Personally, I this moment mostly made me miss Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts.

As Captain Hook and Emma talk about their in-flux relationship, Sleepy and Grumpy tell them about the being who froze their car. Hook and Emma follow Elsa’s ice trail, but she creates a giant snow monster similar to Marshmallow from “Frozen.”

In yet another flashback, Elsa runs away to the forest with Anna in pursuit. Elsa reveals that her mother wrote, “What we’ve seen from Elsa is terrifying, and it has to be stopped,” and blames herself for their shipwreck. Anna consoles her, and they go to Anna’s future in-laws: the trolls. There, Grand Pabbie via classic cheesy “Once” computer-generated animation says that he does not know what Anna and Elsa’s parents were doing but where they were going: a place called Misthaven.

Back to the future we go! Elsa sees in the newspaper that Belle and Rumpel have gotten married. Nothing else could be front-page news, I guess. Additionally, Regina tells Sidney that she has brought him back to tell her when she arrested Marian so that she can go back to that moment and kill her before Emma saves her. She locks Sidney back in the mirror and learns that Marian was protecting Snow White – Emma’s mother.

On the other side of town, the creepy snow giant monster thing is still terrorizing people, and close watchers may notice that Tiny (Hurley from “Lost”) makes another brief cameo. The monster knocks our heroes out and is about to kill Marian when Regina appears. Regina ultimately destroys the monster, saving Marian but leaving before Emma has a chance to speak with her.

After that climactic battle, Emma utters to Hook the best line of the entire episode: “Wanna go home and see what’s on Netflix?” Emma also finally admits that she has been avoiding Hook because she feels guilty that Regina has lost someone she cares for because of her rescuing Marian.

Back at her house, Regina realizes that the people around her are not necessarily the problem. Instead, the problem lies in the magic unchangeable storybook. Speaking to Sidney, she vows to find the book’s author and force him to change her story: “It’s time for villains to get their happy endings.”

The second moment of major intrigue is that Rumpel returns to the box that he found earlier. Waving his magic dagger over it, Rumpel transforms the box into what appears to be Mickey Mouse’s legendary sorcerer hat from “Fantasia.” Given that Rumpel is also the beast from “Beauty and the Beast” and the crocodile from “Peter Pan,” could Rumpel be “Fantasia”’s sorcerer?

In the final few minutes of the episode, Elsa breaks into Rumpel’s pawn shop and sees the snowflake necklace that belongs to Anna. In the newspaper’s wedding announcement, the necklace is featured in the foreground of Belle and Rumpel’s picture. Viewers learn that Anna ventured to Misthaven alone and that she is missing. Elsa is in Storybrooke because Misthaven is another name for the Enchanted Forest, the land from which all of Storybrooke’s characters come.

Ultimately, this premiere was strong. Its “Frozen”-ladencontent proved mainstream enough to attract a wide audience of 9.34 million viewers – the highest viewership since season six of season two (10.15 million) – but unique enough to the series to create audience interest in what is to come. Surprisingly, although Regina’s storyline had less screentime than the “Frozen” storyline, its intrigue overshadowed Elsa’s mission. Regina’s decision to seek out the story book’s author brings the story full circle, playing into an established “Once” pattern in an innovative way. Instead of just referring to the book for answers, Regina seeks to change the book itself radically, a fact that I anticipate will permeate the series more than “Frozen.”