Does Netflix have another hit on its hands with The Dragon Prince?
The Dragon Prince has some serious talent behind it, including Avatar: The Last Airbender writer, Aaron Ehasz. Clearly, Netflix is hoping to recreate the magic that captured fans of Nickelodeon’s epic from 2005. That said, it has some serious standards to live up to as well. Though there are some missteps along the way, The Dragon Prince succeeds in creating a lush, engaging new world, a mostly likable trio of new heroes, and at least for now, some interest in seeing what happens in Season 2.
The Dragon Prince's world borrows heavily from Avatar; you can even replace some words in Avatar's iconic intro, and it describes The Dragon Prince pretty well: Sun. Moon. Stars. Earth. Sky. Ocean. Long ago, the two nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the humans attacked. Only the Dragon Prince, raised by both Humans and Elves, could bring balance to the world. See?
But thankfully, the setup is unique enough to set itself apart for a whole new tale. In The Dragon Prince, there are six Primal Sources of magic based on the elements. One day, a human Mage discovers a seventh source of dark magic that drains the life from magical creatures to draw strength, so the elves banish humans to the western half of the continent, where there is no magic to take. Finding themselves caught in the middle are two human princes, Callum and Ezran, as well as their half-bulldog, half-frog, Bait. They eventually team up with an Elven Assassin, Rayla, and endeavor to return a lost dragon egg to where it belongs, which will supposedly end the war.
Predisposed to distrust each other, they don’t have the immediate chemistry of Avatar's Aang, Sokka, and Katara, but they’re given just enough time in the spotlight for us to root for them.
Callum begins his journey much like Sokka began his (he’s even voiced by the same actor, Jack De Sena) in that he’s unsure of his abilities, and lacks confidence. He makes up for it with his empathy towards others, and his protectiveness over his little brother Ezran. However, we quickly learn that Ezran (voiced by Sasha Rojen) doesn’t always need that protection, as he’s generally a step ahead of everyone thanks to his good intuition. Rayla (Paula Burrows) is the sarcastic and quippy elf--rightfully so, because she’s the only one with any initial competency in defending them from danger, but is burdened by her pacifism clashing with who she was raised to be.
All three voice actors suit their characters well and have some great chemistry together in some of the more humorous scenes with Rayla’s authoritative Scottish dialect perfectly juxtaposing Callum’s aloofness. There are some genuine moments between the three in their early adventures, although their eventual friendship does feel a tad forced, considering how few episodes they were given to adjust to this reluctant camaraderie.
In addition to our main characters, there’s a strong supporting group. Fleshing out the cast are two siblings who are tasked with tracking down the princes: Claudia, a ditzy yet maniacal wielder of magic, and her brother Soren, a brawler who can’t stand the stuff. There’s also Aunt Amaya, who despite speaking entirely through sign language has a dominating presence whenever she’s in a scene (though the same can’t be said for her translator, Glen--all he’s done so far is yell and get thrown in a dungeon). A few standouts show up in the journey later on who could potentially join the main trio, so I’m hopeful to see whether or not they end up as important as characters from Avatar like Toph, Zuko, and Suki.
Even if that doesn’t end up being the case, The Dragon Prince's beautiful settings make up for any potential lack of meaningful side characters. The world of The Dragon Prince is absolutely gorgeous. Like, I wanted to pause the video on my laptop and hang the screen to the wall like a picture frame kind of gorgeous. From the very first shot of a dragon soaring through the clouds, to the mountains doused in the fleeting light of sunset, nearly every frame of animation is a privilege to watch. Nestled snug within the blurred lines of the Impressionism-influenced The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, The Dragon Prince perfectly uses visuals to emphasize its themes of finding a connection with nature through the elements.
While I could sit staring at a single frame from the show all day, the fight scenes choreographed here are equally impressive. One thing I never anticipated was that two characters with swords could ever compare to the agility and creativity of the element-infused duels from Avatar. Rayla is nimbler on her feet than even Aang (which is notable, considering one of Aang's nicknames in Avatar was Twinkle Toes), and with her twin blades, she can climb up surfaces, dancing around her often larger opponents. It was amazing to see how much use they got out of a fighter with just a bow and arrow, or a fighter with a grappling hook, or a big sword, or a little sword, or even just a dagger. Don’t get me wrong, nothing here is as impressive as Zuko’s Agni Kai against Azula from the finale of The Last Airbender, but give it time--it could happen.
All that said, as much as I enjoy the spectacle of this world and its animation (except the random choppiness in character movement at the beginning of episode 5--what the hell happened?), The Dragon Prince is constantly reminding me I’m watching something that wasn’t made for me. I’m not the teenager I was when Avatar: The Last Airbender was released and some of its jokes and shortcuts in storytelling fall flat because of it. It still has that great, sometimes clever, sometimes absurdist humor that I loved back then, but it’s occasionally forced because characters break the fourth wall and talk like edgy teens using memes to make fun of their parents who “just don’t get it”.
On the other side of the issue, Ezran hardly says anything at all these first nine episodes. One could perhaps chalk it up to him being more on the introverted side, but even when he does speak, his lines don’t give us insight into his personality or motivations. The writers more often than not use him to ask follow up questions as an excuse to relay exposition, or to add a one-liner about the problem they’re currently facing. As one of the three main characters, he feels underdeveloped given how much time he’s on screen.
In addition to characters not pulling their weight in personality, some of them are too overt in foreshadowing their eventual allegiances. Several plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away. Even after the first four episodes, you’ll have a general idea of entire character arcs in terms of enemies becoming allies (or vice versa), and the eventual key confrontations they’ll face.
If you’re on the younger side or plan on watching with your kids, The Dragon Prince has started off well, but that’s the thing--it barely feels like it’s started at all. With only nine episodes at roughly 25 minutes each, we’ve spent very little time with these characters, and while they succeeded in getting me invested, it was just barely. Just as the story starts to take off and the characters begin to effectively work together, the season ends and we’re left in this uneasy middle ground between anticipating more, and forgetting that it even happened. Because it doesn’t necessarily end on a cliffhanger, it felt like if I waited another ten seconds, another episode would auto-play and the story would continue. In that sense, The Dragon Prince Season 1 feels less like an entire season than a half season.
If you’re curious about The Dragon Prince and want to tap into another grand animated adventure, you should. It begins more confident in its worldbuilding, tone, and themes than Avatar did, but when The Last Airbender finished its first 20 episodes, I was hooked. With The Dragon Prince, I'll have to see more to know whether I'll fall completely in love with this world.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Incredible world design and animation||Predictable plot structure|
|When the humor works, it really works||Certain characters need a stronger presence|
|No plot filler|