Where are my dragons?
Time is going to be key in assessing what The Dragon Prince is in the realm of children’s television. At just nine 25-minute episodes, the show’s first season feels like a taste of whatever former Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer Aaron Ehasz has cooked up for this new world he’s created. But where Airbender felt like Nickelodeon’s response to the extreme popularity of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter back in 2005 (and then became its own thing through masterful storytelling and aesthetic creativity), The Dragon Prince too feels like a response, this time to Game of Thrones. Similarly, HBO’s massive hit fantasy series’ first season also felt like a taste of a world destined to expand in its subsequent seasons.
But the similarities don’t end there; there’s literally a platinum blonde teenager fighting to protect an unhatched dragon egg. At least the show is in on it—“Winter is coming…eventually,” the king quips in the series premiere.
As we learn through a Fellowship of the Ring-style prologue, this is a world where the egg of the last dragon king might just be able to bring peace to the world, as well as its two divided, warring peoples: humans and Moonshadow Elves from the land of Xadia. We primarily follow young Prince Callum (Jack De Sena, the voice of Airbender’s chief source of comic relief, Sokka) and his even younger brother Ezran (Sasha Rojen), who would inherit the throne of the human kingdom in his father’s place. We’re also introduced to Rayla (Paula Burrows), a tough as nails Moonshadow Elf who is part of a team of her kin planning to enter the castle and assassinate the king.
They succeed, notably not by Rayla’s hand, as she’s tasked with executing Ezran, the true heir. But in a climatic moment in episode three, which feels like the end of an introductory movie that leads us into the rest of the season, Callum, Ezran, and Rayla discover a dragon egg, the first in an age, and decide to join forces to carry it across the map in hopes of ending the war between their factions. While they’re off on their quest, the king’s advisor, Lord Viren, tries to snatch up the throne while manipulating his children to do his bidding (he’s essentially a cross between Littlefinger and Cersei).
But while The Dragon Prince takes the bones of Thrones, its tone is all Airbender (episodes are even delineated using that show’s book and chapter title cards). There are cute animals with vibrant personalities—chief among them Ezran’s sassy, color-changing bulldog toad Bait—and humor that transcends its medieval fantasy setting (there’s a whole discussion about the concept of “hangry” in one episode). De Sena’s voicework as Callum is easily comparable to Airbender’s Sokka: he fires off bad jokes at even worse moments, is unsure of his strength (turns out he’s a mage), and often breaks the tension bestowed by Rayla’s initially self-serious attitude.
As far as the writing goes, however, Rayla is the strongest figure in this first batch of episodes. She’s a fierce warrior undeniably skilled with a blade, but the magical bracelet she put on before her mission continues to tighten as a consequence of failing to kill Ezran. Her personal journey to find peace within herself, as well as trust in others, is the most satisfying of the season. It doesn’t hurt, too, that she’s utterly badass in every action sequence.
That brings me to the series’ animation. The Dragon Prince employs an odd-looking blend of classic anime style with subtle 3D animation (though not quite as odd-looking as the upcoming Star Wars Resistance). It took me a couple episodes to get used to it, but the colors really pop, and when you get to some of the more fluid, dynamic action scenes, it’s just as stylish and exciting as anything in Airbender or even The Legend of Korra, with similarly creative, rich creature design. That said, it’s clear where the budget went, as the smaller, talkier scenes can occasionally look incredibly blocky and stiff. Were the series to get renewed with a slightly larger budget, these problems would likely go away, but for now, there are a couple of dialogue scenes in the first season that leave a really ugly impression of what this style of animation can do in 2018.
Speaking of stiff, all the political maneuverings of the adult characters can feel really soapy and exposition heavy early on. As the younger characters become more integral to the season’s drama, this problem slowly starts to fade away, but there were definitely moments in the first few entries where the adults needed to lighten up.
It is refreshing, however, to have such complex, human villains, save for Lord Viren. His two children are just as in on the series’ sense of humor as the heroes, and another warrior comes in about midway through who demonstrates how important and progressive this show can be. The character is deaf, her sign language being one spot where the animators didn’t skimp on the details, and she’s given a private moment with her translator that speaks volumes to the affection Ehasz has for his characters already. She’s just one example of the show’s strong diversity; characters of different skin tones abound and its female characters are every bit as capable as its male heroes – if not more so.
And that’s really where The Dragon Prince crosses paths with Airbender the most. Both shows have tremendous hearts that they hope to share with audiences of all creeds (there are even racial undertones in how everyone talks to Rayla and about the elves in general). The way the season ends, on a nail-biting cliffhanger, it’s clear the writers are hoping Netflix will give them more time to play in this world. Based on these nine episodes, they’ve earned that chance. Shows this affectionately and thoughtfully made are still a rarity in children’s television, and there’s enough gravitas to the drama that adults will likely remain engaged. By no means is The Dragon Prince on the level of either Airbender or Thrones yet, but given time, it doesn’t feel impossible to imagine it reaching those heights.