A review by Aidan Moher of Netflix’s new cartoon The Dragon Prince persuaded me to go and watch it. The relevant hook being that the show is a new animated series from one of the writers of Avatar, Aaron Ehasz.
If on the strength of that connection, you are hoping for something with the complexity or subtly of worldbuilding as Avatar, The Dragon Prince might disappoint. The setting is a more conventional epic fantasy world complete with dragons, elves and castles. A heavy info-dump at the start of episode 1 explains the magic system (shades of Avatar there in that it is elemental) and the surrounding history. The world (or at least a continent) is split between a human half and a magical elvish half. The humans are attempting to exploit “dark magic” (that’s not going to end well) and the border between the elves and humans is guarded by dragons. Just prior to the story starting, troops of a human king killed the top dragon and destroyed the dragon’s egg: the egg being the “Dragon Prince” of the title.
Episodes 1 to 3 are primarily focused on setting up the premise and dynamics of the series and it is really only by episode 4 that the show hits its stride. Two princes (step brothers) one still a child and one a teenager on a quest to try and heal the divisions in the world with the help from a young elf who is an assassin who doesn’t want to kill people. At this point, the kind of relationship dynamics, humour and stories begin to pull you in.
The initial episodes throw a lot at the viewer but it is interesting what is explained (sometimes clumsily) and what isn’t. We know very little by the end of the nine episodes about the prince’s mother and nothing about Prince Callum’s father (the older prince is not the son of the current king). I don’t think that is a flaw in the storytelling, the writers clearly trust viewers to cope with not having all the details yet. However, that trust didn’t extend to the more general set up. Compared with Avatar which managed to do the key info-dump of worldbuilding in the title sequence and then let us discover the world more organically, The Dragon Prince felt in more of a hurry to establish how the overt fantasy elements work even though the world depicted is a more conventional setting.
A stronger element to the show is almost all of the antagonists are sympathetic characters. The story settles into a heroes-on-a-quest being pursued but they are being chased by brother and sister duo Claudia and Soren, both of whom are depicted as basically good people. Characters also are somewhat varied in terms of ethnicity (both the King and the younger of the two princes are black in an otherwise faux-medieval-Europe setting). The prince’s aunt, General Amaya, is deaf and signs — her signing is usually interpreted by her deputy but at least one sequence trusts the audience enough to let her signing go untranslated.
Nine episodes are only just enough to get a feel for the show. Its primary strength (and similarity to Avatar) is the strength and likability of the characters.