It was Tim Burton’s 2010 version of “Alice in Wonderland” that made the famously blue-frocked daydreamer a steampunk princess.
Lewis Carroll’s heroine was certainly adventuresome and tart-tongued, but Burton’s film turned her action hero. This Alice slew the Jabberwocky and restored justice to Wonderland, taught the Mad Hatter to love again and all those awful Victorians to respect a young woman’s choices. This Alice had size-altering cordials, but she also had a sword and a mission.
So it was only a matter of time before she would have her own TV show.
Similar color palettes notwithstanding, Burton has nothing to do with ABC’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” which premieres Thursday. It’s a promising fantasy-drama that tells yet another alternate version of Alice’s famous trip down the rabbit hole (the Syfy mini-series “Alice” also recently had a go.)
“Wonderland” is a spinoff of “Once Upon a Time,” and creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz lose little time in establishing brand continuity, which includes the mingling of characters original to the Disney company (which of course owns ABC) with those adapted from other sources. In “Once Upon a Time,” Mulan mixes it up with Prince Phillip and Aurora; in “Wonderland,” well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
We meet Alice first as a young girl recently returned from her adventures, and then as a young woman (Sophie Lowe) who has been institutionalized. When her father did not believe her tales of Wonderland, Alice returned in search of proof. Along the way she lost her heart to a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), and then Cyrus to the evil of the Red Queen (Emma Rigby). Her tales of mermaids and Cheshire cats led to a diagnosis of madness, a costume of bedraggled but fetching white linen and a possible lobotomy.
Fortunately, the White Rabbit (voice by John Lithgow, fashion by Tom Wolfe, eyewear by John Lennon) is on the case. He enlists the aid of one Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha), a Wonderland ex-pat who owes Alice a debt and so agrees to help save her. Not that she needs much saving; when told that Cyrus may be alive, Alice demonstrates a non-Victorian skill in martial arts (and the potential for a video game spinoff.)
Once again, she finds herself in Wonderland, this time on a post-feminist quest to rescue the imprisoned prince/genie, which will require fighting the evil forces threatening, no doubt, to take over and/or destroy all that is good, beautiful and etc., etc., etc. There is plenty of that — the good, the beautiful and the etc.
Some of it is conjured by CG magic (the Red Queen’s palace is splendid, and the White Rabbit’s ears a masterwork), and some by just good storytelling and performer chemistry, which Lowe and Socha have in abundance. Add to that a smattering of witty dialogue, clever character twists and, of course, the Victo-goth steampunk look, and ABC has another shot at redefining the family hour. It even has potential crossover appeal with YA fiction fans and aging lit majors.
If “Wonderland” doesn’t stumble under the weight of its own ambitions, that is. To quote the Wicked Witch of the West (not a member of the Disney copyright community), these things must be handled deli-cate-ly.
“Once Upon a Time” struggled to find a purpose after Season 1, and the seeding of Carroll with Disney is initially quite jarring, even if it does involve the always-welcome Naveen Andrews. Still, if the writers and the network are content and able to mirror Carroll’s knack for dreamy digression, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” could be all that, and a side of magic cordial too.
‘Once Upon a Time in Wonderland’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)