Review: THE DRAGON PRINCE

mv5bmja5mjewodu1mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzk0mza5ntm-_v1_uy268_cr90182268_al_Season one of THE DRAGON PRINCE dropped last Friday on Netflix.  At nine episodes, it was an incredibly short run for an animated half-hour, and the end result is a show that feels more tease than actual plot.  Hailing from producers Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond, Netflix was very vocal about the former’s involvement, as he was an instrumental writer on the phenomenal AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.  This also meant that THE DRAGON PRINCE had some incredibly big shoes to fill, and it remains to be seen if it can grow into them.

THE DRAGON PRINCE opens on a worthy set up.  After humans found a way to create dark magic, they were banished by the elves from the kingdom of Xadia to the decidedly non-magical realm of Katolis.  For centuries, the humans have been trying to return to Xadia, fighting at a border guarded by the Dragon King (actual dragon, not just a title).  Recently, powerful dark magic was used to strike down the king and destroy the egg containing the prince.

The first few episodes move at a promising clip, almost feeling like one movie than several episodes.  Events are set in motion when it becomes clear that a group of Moonshadow elves are en route to kill the human ruler, King Harrow, in retaliation for his part in killing the Dragon King.  Harrow tries to send his young son Ezran, and older step-son Callum away to safety, but all plans are derailed when Callum, Ezran, and female elf assassin Rayla discover the egg of the dragon prince safely hidden away in the depths of the castle.  Unsure of who to trust, the three flee the castle, determined to return the egg to its mother, hoping the gesture of goodwill will end the war between the two countries, or at least let peace talks be more agreeable.

There are definitely things to like in this production.  The artwork is gorgeous, and you can see that the show is trying to take traditional fantasy tropes and push beyond them.  Look at that dragon in the show poster. Its form is different yet recognizable and wonderful.  And the showrunners have taken great care to make an ethnically diverse cast throughout the show, not falling into the trap of an all-white cast just because it is a “medieval” setting. As for the characters themselves, there’s lots of promise for interesting arcs, if the show ever gets the chance to let them grow.  I’m particulary fascinated with Claudia, daughter of the king’s advisor, Lord Viren.  Always cheerful, Claudia is nevertheless terrifying in her willingness to engage in any form of magic, seemingly obvious to the nature of dark magic in particular. Despite this recklessness, it’s clear she’s not evil in the traditional sense.  She’s motivated out of a desire to protect people. Magic in all its forms is a tool and she’s going to use it.  How much Claudia knows about the plots in the kingdom, and whose side she will ultimately land on, will be fascinating to watch.

Unfortunately, what we get in terms of both plot and character development this season is extended set up with very little payoff by the finale. The threads left hanging are frustrating rather than promising. A letter to Callum from King Harrow containing mysterious information is dropped during a fight sequence and disappears from the story.  The reason why the egg is in the castle in the first place is barely interrogated and never discussed after the trio hits the road.  Even the very worrisome actions of clear villain Lord Viren is never brought up by Callum, who has a very rough run-in with the advisor before they leave the castle. The three main characters are focused on their one track goal of returning the dragon egg without ever discussing the big picture.  Part of this is likely largely due to the incredibly short order of episodes. This felt like the first half, or even the first third of a season, with arcs being set up all over the place.  There are several potentially interesting threads that have to eventually collide at some point, but that point doesn’t even appear to be a glimmer on the horizon.

But the thing I bumped on most with THE DRAGON PRINCE was the unevenness of tone.  It often felt like the showrunners weren’t quite sure who the show was for, and were trying to make sure that seven-year olds weren’t getting lost in the shuffle, while also entertaining the very adult-aged fans of LAST AIRBENDER.  At one point, for example, one character was making a case to a second character for an assassination attempt.  It’s a hefty and serious conversation, and the first character argues that the fate of the nation is at a tipping point – to which the second character brightly replies “Like a seesaw!”  It’s a jarring moment, and undercuts the gravity of the situation.  Unfortunately, the show is littered with such moments, choosing quips over storytelling.  LAST AIRBENDER was a show known for its humor, but it knew when to table the jokes in favor of an emotional beat.  That’s not the case here, when many moments of true menace or emotional growth are sabotaged by the low IQ of the other characters in a scene.

I’m hopeful that THE DRAGON PRINCE will become a show that I can unabashedly adore, and that one day I will view these episodes as just growing pains.  After all, even LAST AIRBENDER had its rough patches. Netflix has been silent about future plans for the show, perhaps waiting to see how the initial batch is received.  I wish that they had allowed a longer episode order because at the moment, all I’m left with is questions.  While one thread certainly came to a close, there was no real clash, no showdown of any kind.  There was just momentum that came to an abrupt end.  A serialized half-hour show that is also doing a massive amount of world-building needs more time than 9 episodes can provide.  If nothing else, I’m curious to see if THE DRAGON PRINCE can deliver on what they’re setting up, and I’ll be tuning in to any future episodes to see if the writers stick the landing.

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