I may have mentioned I’m a bit of a late-to-the-party Avatar fan, I marathon’d the entire series a few years ago, and it’s become something of a node, a go-to point in my creative reference library whenever I create something fantasy. It’s an off-piste and indirect approach to the classical westernised fantasy of elves and dragons that Tolkien drew together from Arthurian, Norse, and Christian mythologies. The series embraced eastern viewpoints and philosophies, the notions of household and local gods or spirits, the Qi-like elements of elemental bending, and with it brought profoundly human elements, and rich political analogues.
That’s a tall order for a kids show!
So when the drum starts beating: “Is this the next Avatar?” “Avatar meets epic fantasy” “What Avatar fans have been waiting for” I had my curiosity piqued, but I’ve been critiquing films and television since I was fourteen, so I went in to The Dragon Prince with the eye of a sceptic. This will be a short review, because in all fairness, this series is only in its infancy, and has a mere nine episode at twenty-ish minutes a piece, so let me be as fair as I can on a show being compared to an icon of animation.
But let me start by severing a few ties here. The only names I’ve been able to connect between Dragon Prince and Avatar are creative director Aaron Ehasz, formerly lead writer on Avatar, Giancarlo Volpe who was a director in both, and Jack De Sena, the voice of Sokka in Avatar, now playing our hero Callum. And while there are definitely heavy footprints of Avatar here to see, there are some noticeable differences in creative direction and writing style. This is no bad thing of course, creative teams have to change in order to create anything different, and this is definitely different, however…
There is something “toothless” about elves and dragons and wizards, and I say this as someone who only recently praised Iron Fist for falling back on the classics of its genre! I have yet to see any component that has not yet been done to death. Elves and humans are at war, as it turns out a critical component of the conflict turns out to be a simple misunderstanding, so a band of plucky adventurers go on a quest to end the war before a key escalation, all the while the “grand vizier” type character is at home sewing discord.
Too long spent playing D&D, or playing video games perhaps? It’s a story opener I’ve seen often enough that I could practically recite the script in time with each episode as I watched it.
Other reviewers have already remarked that the series requires “time to grow”. It’s petulant in the least to demand a little originality after only nine episodes. If we’re continuing the comparison to Avatar, the first nine episodes are highly episodic, and similarly predictable, and it grows into one of the greatest overall narratives to have graced the small screen. And I’ve already said that there are good reasons to lean on classic concepts when creating for younger minds… but so far this is decidedly by-the-numbers fantasy with nothing to point at and say “that’s new”.
We have a simple magic system based on an elemental category system, relying on power sources that are drawn upon for various different spell types. Different races appear to have a particular affinity for one or other power source, and humans naturally created their own by destroying life. Elves are deeply attuned with magic and nature, incredibly agile and stealthy, and have some advanced weapons. Dragons are highly intelligent and powerful entities that somehow keep getting killed by humans.
Please don’t think this an overly harsh critique. As per usual characters are likeable, well written, and blessed with a moral ambiguity that allows for nuances not present in shallower stories. There’s a rather grim coup, predictable to begin with, now getting more intricate, whose development I am actively looking forward to. In short this is a series worth chancing on if you can overlook the choppy frame rate, but do not buy wholly into the hype surrounding The Dragon Prince, for now it is merely fine.