Casting the live action counterpart of any beloved literary or animated characters is always a contentious process. While big screen adaptations may get more press and excitement around them, small screen adaptations can usually get off much more easily.
Once Upon A Time's seven season run was relatively a quiet one, in terms of the attention it drew from the general public. But the flip side of that, therefore, is it never drew the level of star power that better big screen adaptations of everyone's favorite fairy tales and Disney princesses have in recent years.
As a member of ABC's Sunday night lineup - and, eventually, the wasteland of Friday night television - Once Upon A Time could pretty much cast whoever they liked for a role without having to worry about cultural sensitivities, acting talent, ability to adequately embody the character as fans already knew them, and more.
In a serialized television show, the production time and audition process was likely much shorter than it would be for any cinematic version.
So, as a result of all these factors, Once Upon A Time often just got the whole casting thing plain wrong, turning out poor adaptation after poor adaptation of characters who deserved to be played by far more talented and accurate actors.
Here are the 20 Once Upon A Time Fan Castings Better Than What We Got.
20 Dianna Agron as Aurora
From the moment Once Upon A Time introduced the character of Aurora, it was clear that the series had no grasp of what the character of Sleeping Beauty was really meant to be. Aurora was the closest the series came to turning a Disney princess into a full-blown antagonist, given how often she stood in the heroes’ way, and how she was manipulated by the wicked Cora. It didn’t help that the actress behind the character, Sarah Bolger, was woefully miscast.
Had Once Upon A Time chosen a better actress, it’s likely that Aurora could have been a more enjoyable character with better storylines.
Dianna Agron of Glee fame would have fit the bill perfectly, looking every bit the likeness of the Disney character, with the angelic singing voice to boot. She would have nailed every emotional beat the story threw her way, unlike whatever it was Bolger attempted to convey in any scene that required more than a grimace.
19 Gemma Chan as Mulan
The character of Fa Mulan, or Hua Mulan, is one that has held considerable importance to viewers from China everywhere. After all, the ancient legend of Mulan is one of the most revered stories in all of literature from China. Leave it to Once Upon A Time to get the casting totally wrong from the very beginning, therefore, by casting an Asian actress in the part – Jaime Chung, who displayed very little of the emotional range and strength so innately part of the character’s story.
If Once Upon A Time had put more effort into being culturally conscious during their casting process, they would have quite easily come across an actress perfect for the part: Gemma Chan, an actress of Asian descent who has proven herself to be quite gifted in comedy, drama, action, science fiction, and so much more.
18 Emma Watson as Wendy Darling
Once Upon A Time’s take on the story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys is truly a unique one – and a troubling one, at that. But something the series really fumbled was the way in which it handled the role Wendy Darling played in Peter’s life. Wendy is rarely seen in the entire arc, only occasionally glimpsed as a prisoner on Neverland, before she is reunited with her brothers back in Storybrooke. She makes so little an impact on the plot that it would have been entirely possible to remove her character from the story at all without anything changing.
The actress who played Wendy is largely forgettable, which contributes to the shoddy nature of the story she was given.
However, had someone more recognizable and with stronger conviction of personality been given the part, that wouldn’t have been the case. Emma Watson’s turn as Belle in the live action Beauty and the Beast represents exactly the kind of performance the series should have sought instead.
17 Tom Welling as Prince Eric
Prince Eric is widely considered to be one of the best of the Disney princes, even if not the brightest of them all. He’s passionate, he’s dreamy, he’s kind – and he actually gets a personality developed along the way, unlike some of the earlier nameless Prince Charmings that Disney explored. In Once, however, Prince Eric is about as nondescript as they come, never given any considerable amount of material in any of his scant appearances.
With a better, more prominent actor, the series could have used Eric as frequently as they made use of Ariel. Someone like Tom Welling would have been familiar with the world of genre fiction, and while princes aren’t exactly the same as superheroes, his experience exploring vulnerable puppy dog characters would certainly have lent itself to providing a credible portrayal of the more vulnerable Disney prince.
16 Adelaide Kane as Snow White
The casting of Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White/Mary Margaret Blanchard is one that certainly got Once Upon A Time on the map to begin with. She was a household name at that point, and as a result, she even received top billing on the series, despite Snow hardly being the series’ main character. But it’s hard not to feel that Goodwin was often phoning it in during certain stretches of the series.
While her performance as Mary Margaret in Storybrooke was usually pretty strong, especially in the first season, her acting as Snow White in the Enchanted Forest was often hit or miss at best.
An actress like Adelaide Kane – who, ironically, would go on to star in the series’ polarizing seventh season as Ivy Belfrey, also known as Drizella Tremaine – may have been better suited to the overall princess turned rebel storyline, given her own experience playing both royalty and strong-willed female characters.
15 Sophie Turner as Ariel
Ariel is arguably one of the seminal Disney princesses. Spunky and optimistic, determined and romantic, she embodies so many easily relatable traits all at once, a perfect paradoxical princess that has come to mean so much to so many. Her bubbly personality is certainly one of her most recognized traits, as is her infectious curiosity, and Once Upon A Time certainly got that right with the casting of JoAnna Garcia Swisher as the iconic mermaid princess.
But Garcia Swisher’s Ariel didn’t have the spunk that Ariel is so well known for. She was just, for better or worse, adorably ditzy and fascinated by dinglehoppers. An actress like Sophie Turner, who has spent years showcasing Sansa Stark’s development from idealistic young girl to strong and empowered young woman, would have suited this role perfectly.
14 Paul Wesley as Prince Phillip
Prince Phillip isn’t exactly a character who is rife with personality in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, so you can’t exactly fault Pretty Little Liars alumnus Julian Morris for his lackluster turn as the character. It doesn’t help that the series also clearly didn’t have real long-term plans for the character, much in the way that they didn’t seem to know what to do with Aurora. Had Dianna Agron been given the role of Aurora, she could have benefited from a stronger scene partner in her Prince Phillip.
The Vampire Diaries’ Paul Wesley could have been an excellent choice.
He would have made the perfect Prince Phillip given his experience in emotional journeys and genre fiction in his time on that likewise polarizing fantasy series.
13 Melissa Benoist as Anna of Arendelle
No matter what kind of Once Upon A Time fan you encounter, you’re likely to get a very strong response regarding the worth of the Frozen storyline that dominated the first half of the series’ fourth season. Whether they believe it was a waste of time and corporate synergy, or whether they believe it contributed meaningfully to the series in some ways, the Frozen storyline remains a controversial issue for many fans even all these years after it aired.
Elizabeth Lail played the adorably quirky Princess Anna of Arendelle in the series’ arc, and she was certainly fine showing both Anna’s adorable nerdy side and her deeply emotional side, too. However, a standout performance from the likes of Glee and Supergirl star Melissa Benoist, who has proven herself to be gifted at comedy, drama, and music alike, could have truly been a game changer.
12 Avan Jogia as Aladdin
Long before rumors that an Aladdin live action film would be happening, or that the street rat himself would be appearing on Once Upon A Time had begun milling about, there had been talk online that Avan Jogia of series such as Victorious, Twisted, and Tut would make a truly wonderful choice to bring the beloved character to life.
With the signature dark mop of hair, boyish good looks, and a kind smile, Jogia has many of the key traits necessary for making Aladdin an immediately sympathetic character.
In his turn as Aladdin on Once Upon A Time, Deniz Akdeniz was certainly strong enough, but his Aladdin lacked some of the infectious, childlike wonder that makes the Disney Aladdin so immediately lovable. Jogia’s impeccable comic timing would have meant that was never an issue to begin with.
11 Amanda Seyfried as Rapunzel
Infuriating though it may be to hear, Once Upon A Time didn’t just adapt the story of Rapunzel once, but twice – and worst of all, they totally mishandled it each time. The decision to race swap the Rapunzel story in the third season was a truly inspired choice. However, by forcing the entire fairytale into one episode and never so much as revisiting the characters after that, the series undercut itself almost immediately. Season seven introduced a truly disturbing Rapunzel and Mother Gothel storyline that is better left unexplored here.
The Rapunzel that Disney created so wonderfully in Tangled is a character that the series should have explored. A live action version could have been played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried, whose signature wide, innocent eyes and golden locks practically leapt right from the animation cells that make up Rapunzel’s appearance in the beloved film.
10 Kate Winslet as The Evil Queen
There’s no way of beating around the bush on this one: at the end of the day, Lana Parrilla isn't a great actress. For seven grueling seasons, The Evil Queen didn't garner any sympathy or support, particularly in the scenes in the Enchanted Forest. She never once felt believable, as a monarch or as a refined villain – instead coming across as a petulant brat in far too much makeup and fake leather.
A more experienced actress could have made The Evil Queen a far more menacing foe, and could even have explored Regina’s duality with more grace.
Though she would never lower herself to appear in such a role, Kate Winslet stands as far and away the sort of actress the series should have sought out – someone with natural poise, grace, and gravitas who also has the potential for unexpected cold and warmth in equal measure.
9 Jonathan Groff as Kristoff
Sometimes, you really just can’t get any better than the actor who originally provided the vocals and voiceover work for the original character in the Disney film. That’s definitely the case with Kristoff from Frozen, as Once Upon A Time’s choice of casting Scott Michael Foster couldn’t have been more poorly decided. Foster never once felt believable in the role, never having the right chemistry with either Anna or even Sven the reindeer – who was, far and away, a better actor in the arc than Foster was.
Having Jonathan Groff, who brought Kristoff to life in the smash success Disney film, bring the character to life on the small screen would have provided the series with a uniquely special moment that it never had otherwise. Groff’s talent at both comedy and intense emotion has been proven by his track record on Broadway, as well as his scene-stealing role on Glee.
8 Jenna Coleman as Belle French
Sometimes, series regulars can turn out to be some of the weakest elements of a cast – and unfortunately, that’s definitely the case for Once’s version of Beauty herself, Belle French. Once’s Belle is played by Lost veteran Emilie De Ravin, who was certainly a wonderful standout on that series for her role as Claire Littleton.
However in Once, De Ravin never once feels believable as the inspiring, independent, selfless Belle that so many girls have idolized for their entire lives.
At times, her moments of supposed independence are rendered meaningless due to De Ravin’s poor acting choices. Doctor Who and Victoria star Jenna Coleman could have brought some much needed warmth and fire to the role, as she has brought multiple female characters to life who have been driven by the need to help others, while never compromising their own agency or integrity in the way that De Ravin’s Belle did time and time again.
7 Ben Barnes as Flynn Rider
As we’ve already explained, the ways in which Once Upon A Time handled the story of Rapunzel not once, but twice were both entirely unacceptable. While it’s true that not every adaptation of a fairy tale they featured was ripped directly from the Disney canon, the series missed a real opportunity by failing to integrate the character of Flynn Rider, also known as Eugene Fitzherbert, on either occasion.
One of the most distinctive and modern Disney “prince” characters of them all, someone like Flynn would have fit seamlessly into this world of allegedly modern fairy tales. A talented actor like Ben Barnes, who is practically known for his signature smolder and smirk much in the way Flynn is, would have been the perfect choice to bring this larger than life animated character to the small screen.
6 Dakota Fanning as Tinkerbell
Many people consider the Peter Pan arc explored in the first half of Once Upon A Time’s third season to be one of the strongest narratives the series undertook, no matter how surprising the decision was to make Peter Pan out to be a villain after all. However, even when they praise this story, something that is almost never mentioned in a positive light is the series’ version of Tinkerbell, as played by future iZombie lead Rose McIver.
Both the lighthearted Tink of flashbacks and the jaded and judgmental Tinkerbell of the present feel fundamentally untrue to the character as Disney crafted her.
McIver’s grating accent doesn’t help matters either. A younger actress such as Dakota Fanning, who has worked her way through the typecasting of being an adorable sweet little girl to become an impressive actress as a young woman, could have navigated the change in Tink’s character with far more skill and ease.
5 Nicole Beharie as Tiana
As the most distinctly modern of the Disney princesses, and one of the first princesses of color at that, Tiana becoming a main character in Once Upon A Time meant a great deal to a lot of people even before the character was announced as part of the reboot seventh season. Mekia Cox was brought in to portray the strong-willed, fiercely independent princess. However, no matter the changes made to Tiana’s story in the series, and all the opportunities the series offered for Cox to step up to the plate, her performance never once connected with the spunky character Disney created in its movie.
Sleepy Hollow veteran Nicole Beharie could have done a much better job with the character, as she had already had her fair share of experience playing a character whose very world was changed and defined by circumstances out of her control, and yet never let the odds stop her from pursuing her dreams.
4 Deborah Ann Woll as Merida
The fifth season of Once Upon A Time wasn’t exactly the high point of the series by any measure, but one of the biggest mistakes the series made during that time was the decision to cast Amy Manson as the already polarizing princess Merida from Brave. Manson’s performance felt truly one dimensional, leaning too heavily into the Scottish brogue and abrasive aspects of Merida’s character without allowing for any of her barely glimpsed depth to shine through.
Another redheaded actress with considerable genre experience could have done much more with the role.
As both Jessica Hamby on True Blood and Karen Page in the Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe, Deborah Ann Woll has had plenty of experience playing strongly opinionated heroines who are able to hold their own, while also revealing vulnerable sides that aren’t obvious upon a first glance.
3 Mo'Nique as Ursula
Ursula is, far and away, one of the most iconic Disney villains in the entire canon. Larger than life in many ways and truly evil in its realest sense, the tentacled menace is one that Once Upon A Time should have put far more care into crafting and casting. Merrin Dungey has played polarizing villains before, such as in her turn on Alias, but in Once, her Ursula was ineffectual, never once inspiring the maniacal fear that Disney’s Ursula does so well.
It was also, frankly, an example of forcing a character to fit stereotypical beauty conventions that felt truly baffling. Ursula, as a sea witch, is full-figured and proud of it. However, both Dungey’s Ursula and the younger version of Ursula flashbacks reveal are painfully thin. A talented powerhouse of an actress like Mo’Nique could have made the character far richer on screen, while staying truer to the animated version’s comedic nature as well.
2 Tom Ellis as Captain Hook
It’s a pretty big problem when a main character is clearly only being kept around because of fan enthusiasm over their appearance. Unfortunately, Captain Hook on Once Upon A Time is pretty much a cookie cutter example of what can happen when fan feedback is given far too much weight in plotting a series.
Colin O’Donoghue’s strongest work came in the pirate’s earliest episodes, when he was an out and out villain, threatening and not meant to be sympathized and woobified for fangirls everywhere.
The writing did what it could with the character, but O’Donoghue’s acting left a lot to be desired, especially when he often relied on the same tired expressions again and again. Someone with a wider range of talent, such as Lucifer’s Tom Ellis, would have imbued the character with a much more sympathetic personality, and made the narrative captivating to watch and not endlessly boring to endure.
1 Gal Gadot as Megara
One of the most unforgivable adaptations of a beloved Disney character Once Upon A Time was responsible for was its total bastardization of the character of Megara in season five. Utterly stripped of anything remotely resembling the strong, no nonsense, film noir femme fatale personality that made her so unique in the Disney film Hercules, Once’s Meg was played as a waifish damsel in distress by Hannibal’s Kacey Rohl.
Megara deserved to be portrayed by someone who could master wit, strength, and vulnerability in equal measure. It also wouldn’t have hurt to have someone with some experience portraying a Greek character, if they couldn’t get someone who was Greek, themselves. While it would clearly never have happened, Wonder Woman herself Gal Gadot is someone who would have been able to bring Meg to life with all the personality she so richly deserved.
Which alternative casting choice do you think would have improved Once Upon A Time? Let us know in the comments!