Author’s note: the first three episodes were provided for review.
Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, its first season arriving September 14th, feels like a blast from the past. It has the trappings of a scrappy, fun show it will no doubt be tirelessly compared to, especially with one of the co-creator names attached. But it is, at the same time, a product of the streaming age, with how its story is structured and its approach to letting scenes and characters breathe.
Co-created by Aaron Ehasz (of Avatar: The Last Airbender fame) and Justin Richmond (of video game company Naughty Dog fame), The Dragon Prince, at least in its opening hours, takes its time to round out its scenario before finally dropping everything together in a seamless and smart way. Callum and Ezran are the two sons of King Harrow in the human kingdom, at a cold (but brewing) war with the dragon and elf kingdoms over the use of dark magic and the slaying of the dragon king. But when Rayla and her team of assassin elves come into the picture seeking revenge, a whole web of events begins, revealing that our heroes are tied together with secrets from the past.
The issue for the first two episodes is its build-up. It’s a lot of table setting for the major events in the opening episodes, but to its credit, it does so with character and worldbuilding always at the forefront. There are a number of moving parts at play to set up the series, even beyond its prologue in the first episode. But by the time it’s done, and episode three is in full swing, the show becomes rather impressive.
The main draw is the characters. Callum is a quick-witted but frustrated protagonist, who isn’t sure of his abilities and duties. Ezran only seems to care about having fun and stealing jelly tarts with his pet buddy, Bait. Rayla is dedicated to being an assassin but questions taking a life when it’s unnecessary. These main three characters have their morals and their definitive beliefs, and stick to them even when it’s not to their benefit, a clear sign of strength in their characters.
The animation is not going to be everyone’s favorite thing. It has a reduced frame rate, an almost choppy and abrupt style to its movements, though it’s cleared up and cleaner in action setpieces. It’s a design and presentation choice, and personally, I did not find it to be an issue. It works once you’re used to it, and it never became a detriment.
The Dragon Prince will also face the scrutiny of Avatar: The Last Airbender fans, hoping for a new one of those. For some, they may find that particular itch scratched; but for many, it will miss such a mark. And it should not be a problem, as it isn’t meant to be the same. Similar, perhaps, but not the same. It’s in the style, with “Book One, Chapter One” title cards opening every episode, and a quick flash of a map in its short opening credits. It has a similar lightheartedness to its characters, but the stakes and adversaries are dangerous from the get-go. It’s a show where loyalties are tested, and the greater good is at the forefront. It succeeds in providing this, even if it takes a while in getting there.
Netflix’s The Dragon Prince has some struggling issues up front, relying too heavily on building its world and main story thrust in long stretches and sacrificing some excitement in the process. But when it finally does pick up, and it does so at the right time, it becomes instantly fun, for both a family or a fan of animation. It holds a successful formula of lightheartedness and mature themes, and adds it to a grand adventure worthy of your time.
The Dragon Prince arrives on Netflix on September 14th.