'Once Upon a Time' delivers another surprising twist for famous characters

The newest episode of 'Once' included an unexpected revelation about Belle. Can the show continue to change familiar fairy tale storylines with success?

Jack Rowand/ABC/AP
'Once Upon a Time' stars Ginnifer Goodwin (l.) and Lana Parilla (r.).

A new episode of the hit ABC fairy tale show “Once Upon a Time” surprised fans and included another development for one of Disney’s most famous characters, Belle of “Beauty and the Beast.”

The show, which depicts various fairy tale characters and their adventures, revealed during the March 20 episode that Belle (Emilie de Ravin) and her husband, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), are expecting a child.

This latest development in the relationship between Rumpelstiltskin and Belle is another example of unexpected storylines for characters that viewers may think they already know. But how much freedom do the show's writers have to change aspects of characters that are no doubt valuable properties for Disney? And will viewers follow along if they think characters are being too manipulated by the Disney machine?

Not unlike the second act of the Broadway musical "Into the Woods," which dives into fairy tale life after familiar happily-ever-after endings, "Once" creators continue to strive for the right balance in exploring how characters and their relationships continue to evolve and change in a way that is believable to loyal fans.

“Part of the fun of the show for us was taking these stories that were so formative for us and saying, 'What’s our spin on them?,’ ” “Once Upon A Time” co-creator Adam Horowitz told the Los Angeles Times. “….[T]he brand management people at the Walt Disney Company have been great. From when we first pitched the idea, they’ve been very supportive of allowing us to play with their icons and kind of re-invent them.”

But for that to work, it also requires fans to let go of their favorite endings. For example, Belle and Rumpelstiltskin were introduced as a couple in Season One, with Rumpelstiltskin replacing the familiar Beast. Belle was held as a prisoner inside Rumpelstiltskin’s castle, which led to the familiar narrative of the pair falling in love.

Despite this slight variation, the storyline proved popular with viewers, and the couple has become a “fan-favorite, ” notes Rebecka Schumann of the International Business Times.

Some critics felt that marketing from Disney has occasionally intruded on the show, however, with Slate writer Katy Waldman writing about the drawbacks of the sudden appearance of characters from the smash hit Disney film “Frozen.”

“By scooping up 10-month-old Anna and Elsa, ‘Once Upon a Time’ has abandoned any pretense of nervily refreshing timeless tales, or engaging with a tradition,” Ms. Waldman wrote. “We fans aren’t mad – we like the series’ ‘anything goes’ attitude, its willingness to mash unlikely elements together. On the other hand, there’s nothing less magical than the profit motive taking over your dream factory. Disney loosed a good dream to add to the collection when it released ‘Frozen’ last November. A little less factory would be nice.” 

Vulture writer Sarah Caldwell agreed that the integration of “Frozen” characters like Anna and Elsa led to mixed results.

“While the Anna/Elsa arc provided some cute moments … too often characters were ignored...,” Ms. Caldwell wrote. “At times it felt cynical; why further develop fan favorites when you can drop a ‘Let It Go’ reference and just give the people (children) what they want?”

“Once Upon A Time” is currently airing its fifth season and was renewed for another season earlier this month.

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