The Dragon Prince
I recently had the pleasure of rewatching Avatar in its entirety. Bree had never seen it, so we kicked the Last Airbender off about a month before we went out to Hawaii to get married and finished the Legend of Korra a couple weeks ago.
“Well, that was great,” said she. “Have they done anything else…?”
“Boy howdy, did they,” I said. Or something like that. I don’t think I’ve ever actually said boy howdy.
Perhaps inspired by their troubles with Nickelodeon during the making of Korra, creator Aaron Ehasz took a contract with Netflix to develop a completely original property. He was joined by Justin Richmond, best known for his work on Uncharted 3: The Pretty Good One. The result isn’t quite as good as the Last Airbender (yet), but it’s still one of the best stories you can treat your brain to.
Aaron and Justin both are exceptionally good at world building and packing long-term character development in a short amount of screen time. There’s an old quote that runs ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’ meaning ‘don’t waste time.’ They don’t. Every moment on screen carries weight, every chosen bit of body language, tone, and movement reveals something about the characters and their world.
With only nine episodes to work with, though, things feel a little rushed; the Last Airbender had time to breathe and meander, which lent it weight as we discovered the world that was. The Dragon Prince has a lot going on and the early episodes feel like an exposition dump. This feeling is quickly lost as the characters take center stage and we get to explore their world through them. fully coming into its own and going from merely good to great about halfway through the season.
It’s an interesting world full of dragons, elves, and humans. Long ago, the various races lived together in harmony, but everything changed when the humans discovered dark magic. Only the Dragon King could stop them, but just when the world needed him most he was killed and his sole heir, still an egg, was destroyed. Years passed and two young human princes discovered this was a lie, that the egg had been stolen and so they stole it in kind with their elf friend so they could return it to the dragons and stop a war that could kill them all. Although their intentions are great, the human princes have a long way to go before they can return the egg, but their elf friend believes doing so could save the world.
The elf friend is Rayla, a young elf assassin that was sent to kill one of the princes and their father, the king. Rounding out the party is the youngest prince’s pet glow toad, an affable creature named Bait. The five of them are running from the increasingly treacherous dark mage Viren, who has let his dark power consume him and is manipulating his children, Soren and Claudia, into facilitating his ambition. He tells them straight out to kill the princes and take the egg back, no matter the cost.
Oh, and he imprisoned the king’s soul in a bird and has since taken the throne.
An underlying theme in Aaron and Justin’s work is the poison of unchecked ambition and how it taints otherwise good people into doing terrible things, and how it is the young that inherit the mistakes of their parents and have to fix things. Viren is a prime example of the former, as we learn it was he that killed the Dragon King and stole the egg, claiming he had also killed the egg while keeping it hidden for his own purposes. He urges the king to war, causes the elves to seek their bloody revenge, and refuses to take responsibility for any of it. He works to claim more power for himself until he’s called out on it by the human king, but that calling only causes him to double down on his mad dreams.
He involves his unwitting children in his greed, turning the carefree Soren and the careless Claudia into his assassins, taking each aside and giving them a secret task that clearly weighs on both of them. The leader of the elves, Runaan, has been driven to violence by Viren’s actions but is targeting the wrong person, because people like Viren rarely pay for their crimes; one gets the sense that Viren must and will pay his debt over the course of the story.
The princes, by contrast, are the stepson Callum and the eccentric Ezran, two gentle souls that are just trying to be the best people they can be. There’s a purity in their goals and actions, the people they trust and even the lies they feel they have to tell to thwart Viren’s ambition, even if they do not yet know that Viren is responsible for what’s gone wrong in their lives.
Everyone brings their best performances to the table. Luc Roderique lends King Harrow a thrilling complexity with only a few episodes to work with, while Jason Simpson’s amiable Viren is increasingly chilling as the season goes on. Jack de Sana and Sasha Rojen do an impressive job juggling the many whims and thoughts of the human princes, while you can hear the struggle of heritage and circumstance Rayla wrestles with thanks to Paula Burrows. Of note are the clueless children of Viren, Jesse Inocalla’s Soren and Racquel Belmonte’s Claudia, both of whom portray a goodness that is ignorant of their father’s machinations, and both of them struggle with the monster their father is as the truth slowly infects their lives. It’s fantastic work all around and goes a long way towards bringing the Dragon Prince to glorious life.
Season one was all world building and still managed to be impossible to turn away from. Netflix has promised a second nine-episode season in 2019, and hopefully we’ll see a similar production schedule to that of Voltron – short seasons with short wait times between them – because the depth hinted at here makes me need more now.
Final rating is Go Watch This Now.