As soon as Netflix made the announcement for The Dragon Prince was made, expectations for the show were extremely high. Aaron Ehasz and Giancarlo Volpe, who are both producers for The Dragon Prince worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, as a writer and director respectively. They were responsible for some of Avatar’s best episodes and as such are held in high regard by fans of the show.
There was a lot of evidence that this show could be good, despite the awkward animation present in the trailer. But, it wasn’t.
The show takes a lot of cues from Avatar in how it presents the episodes and in its humor, but doesn’t take its cue in developing a unique and interesting fantasy world with fully developed protagonists.
Like A:TLA, each season of The Dragon Prince is referred to as a Book, and each episode is a chapter. The first season of The Dragon Prince is called “Moon,” which is one of the six elements, excuse me, primordial forces that form the basis for magic in the world. The other five are: sun, stars, ocean, earth and sky.
The discovery of a seventh force, dark magic, causes the world to be thrown into conflict.
Elves and dragons were horrified by this turn in events and banished the humans to another part of the continent. Over the course of the next two thousand years, hatred and prejudice grew on both sides leading to the human King Harrow, of Katolis, to invade the magical land of Xadia and murder the Dragon King. He also destroyed the king’s only egg and heir, the titular Dragon Prince.
In retaliation, several Elvin assassins invade Katolis to kill Harrow and his young son, Ezran. One assassin, a young elf named Rayla, ditches her mission after Ezran and his older step-brother Callum come across the Dragon King’s egg, completely unscathed in a hidden chamber. The three decide to journey to Xadia to return the egg and prevent a war from breaking out.
Meanwhile, the mage and Harrow’s advisor, Viren attempts to take the throne for himself and sends his children Claudia and Soren to retrieve the egg at any means necessary.
It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. It’s a pretty generic concept. But so was idea behind Avatar. What was important in the show was how it differentiated itself from other shows, comics and movies with the same basic plot. Avatar did that very well. The Dragon Prince didn’t.
The fact that the season is only nine episodes long and takes place over the course of maybe a week or two at most doesn’t help.
There’s no time to develop anything; all the focus is solely on the plot. There’s not enough time to establish characters’ personality beyond a trait or two, develop the world or develop the relationships between them.
The main trio, Callum, Ezran and Rayla have some good defining characteristics but go very far beyond that.
Callum is insecure due to having little physical strength and seemingly no other capabilities other than drawing. He’s also under the belief that Harrow doesn’t see him as a son, since Harrow is only his step-father. The show tries hard to make him like Sokka; lots orself-deprecating and wry humor, an important skill that is picked up in the series that helps to distinguish them in a land full of powerful soldiers. They’re both even voiced by Jack DeSena.
Ezran is naive, childish, imaginative but more aware of what’s happening than he lets on. He’s also the heir to the throne of Katolis, something that doesn’t get bought up nearly enough considering the fact that he’s only nine. He’s a lot like Greg from Over the Garden Wall in a lot of ways.
Unlike Over the Garden Wall, there’s no bad blood or conflict between the brothers. Callum does get annoyed by Ezran, but there’s no real conflict despite the candidacy for the throne.
While it is kind of nice change from the typical sibling rivalry you’d see in this kind of show, it’s not very interesting. There’s no way for the brothers’ relationship to evolve, unless Ehasz and Volpe want the relationship to degrade over time. But, I doubt that’s where they’re going.
Rayla is your pretty typical child assassin type who was forced to grow up too soon. True, the mission to Katolis is her first assassination, which what allows her to change her attitude, but her only other real defining characteristic is her prejudice towards humans who she considers to be beneath elves due to their lack of magical ability and short life spans.
The magic system is another area that lacks clarity. It isn’t clear who can perform magic and who can’t. Callum’s ability to perform a spell is treated as though he’s special despite him doing little more than holding onto a magical orb and saying the right words. It makes it seem as though everyone has the ability to do magic, so long as they have access to the right tools.
There’s nothing special or unique about the world they live in. The locations don’t give the viewer any useful information. They’re either backdrops or obstacles. The characters also don’t interact a lot with others, so not a lot of the world gets explored or mentioned.
Even the food is nothing special. Ice cream and peanut butter are both mentioned in the series as being foods that regularly eaten (at least by royalty.) The Claudia invents coffee or as she calls it, “morning wake up juice.” Why does peanut butter, a food not invented until the 19th century exist but not coffee, a drink literally thousands of years old?
It seems silly but this kind of awkward and uneven world building can really take someone out of the story.
The thing that does set the series apart is its diverse cast. King Harrow is of African descent and Ezran is African and Asian. Callum is also mixed race canonically, though his father’s identity is unknown. Despite being a Western fantasy, The Dragon Prince doesn’t limit its characters by skin color.
But the best way that The Dragon Prince uses diversity to its advantage is with General Amaya, the boys’ aunt. She also happens to be my favorite character. Amaya is a rare character-type in animation: She’s Deaf. She also uses ASL to communicate; real ASL, not any kind of made up hand gestures. To allow hearing audiences to understand, she has a translator.
However, she is much more than just a “token” character considering she has a very distinct personality: she’s loyal and protective of her family. Upon finding out that the boys haven’t eaten breakfast, she lectures them before feeding them. She’s also the only human able to actually put up a fight against Rayla, and one of the few who don’t trust Viren.
The thing I appreciate most about her character is that her Deafness isn’t negated by her other abilities: She’s a general who happens to be Deaf. She’s very physically fit and a good leader, but she doesn’t have any special skills or abilities that cause her Deafness to be a non-issue.
In A:TLA while Toph is blind which causes her to have some issues, she’s a more powerful bender because of it; heightened sense of hearing, ability to tell if somebody’s lying and it allows her to invent a new style of bending. Amaya doesn’t have any of that. At the end of the day, her Deafness affects her in the same way it would affect anyone in our world.
It’s probably unfair of me to continually compare this series to Avatar: The Last Airbender and I know that. I should let it exist on its own, as its own thing. But, it’s hard to let these things go, especially with an Avatar: The Last Airbender live-action reboot on the horizon. The things we grow up with, we tend to hold dear and to a higher standard. And because a product is coming from the same people, we expect a similar quality.
In the end, the show is a victim of high expectations. A lot of its marketing was based off the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it tries to mimic the ideas that made the show so loved. But it fails.
And that’s the scoop.
If you liked this review read: Groening’s Disenchantment highlights the issue with serialized comedy.
Length: 9 episodes ranging from 24 to 27 minutes
Available: Netflix Original
Creators: Writers: Aaron Ehasz, Justin Richmond
Directors: Villads Spangsberg, Giancarlo Volpe
Voice Actors: Jack DeSena, Sasha Rojen, Paula Burrows