Netflix gave us three episodes to preview, and I can’t wait to watch the rest of the series when it drops this weekend because Aaron Ehasz, Giancarlo Volpe, and Justin Richmond have recaptured the elemental magic that made Avatar: The Last Airbender so much fun. They’ve done it by applying fantastical new building materials to the Avatar blueprints, balancing clever new characters with anciently familiar genre tropes so that nothing is ever bogged down in complicated explanations of how the world works. The toughest trick must have been making the unbroken formula feel fresh, but the show glides along at a thrilling, effervescent pace so that the old feels comforting instead of stale.
The world of The Dragon Prince is cut in two, with humans on one side and the mythic populations of Xadia on the other. The Dragon King protected the border between the two until he was slain and his only egg, his sole heir was thought to be destroyed. Now, on the brink of battle, elf assassin Rayla (voiced by Paula Burrows) has been sent to kill the human king despite her misgivings about taking a life that’s one her no harm. When she and the young, comic relief Prince Ezran (Sasha Rojen) and the teenage, reluctant hero step-Prince Callum (Jack De Sena) discover the dragon egg hasn’t been destroyed, they team up to return it in hopes of avoiding a calamitous war.
The plot is steeped in fantasy elements older than Tolkien, but, as serious as the stakes sound, the series is also filled with excellent, juvenile humor that pits Ezran as the heir to Speed Racer‘s Spritle (complete with an adorably rambunctious animal sidekick). Characters are dry, sarcastic, and young. They’re innocents, fumbling their way through youthful concerns about looking cool with a sword and impressing crushable boys and girls while a violent outside world makes other plans for them. It’s a show where a dead-serious elf can proclaim that he’ll send a “shadow hawk with a blood ribbon message” after murdering the king and a show where a toad dog can help Ezran impishly steal fruit tarts from a beleaguered baker.
The magic is all in that balance. Silly and severe. High questions about loyalty and honor and sacrifice blended skillfully with pratfalls and goofy kid nonsense.
Plus, there’s the rules of the fantasy realm. Again, they haven’t set out to reinvent the wheel here; only to give it a tweak for a more enjoyable ride. Essentially there are six elemental sources for magic, but humans (pesky, pesky humans) discovered how to use a corrupting dark magic for their purposes. This seventh magic causes a lot of problems, not the least of which was the “destruction” of the Dragon Prince egg. To call upon the magic, mages draw runes in the air (which appear as wispy neon writing) and say the incantation before blowing hurricane force winds down a hallway or stealing someone’s voice right out of their throat. This is where The Dragon Prince comes closest to stealing from Avatar‘s thunder, but the mechanism for using the magic is so visually appealing, and the expanding limits of what the magic can do make any concept cloning forgivable.
The animation still cribs from a classic anime style with static backgrounds and moving characters. While close-ups get clunky and faces aren’t freely expressive as they should be, the fight scenes and action are gorgeous, and the drawn world overall is dynamic and beautifully detailed.
At the center of the quest are three likable characters, all standing up in their own way to an established order that sees no path forward besides endless war. Rayla, Callum, and Ezra cautiously join forces in what must be the first inter-species alliance in years because they all question the intelligence of perpetuating a bloody cycle. Callum asks his step-father, the king, why he can’t simply make peace with the elves and dragons, and when the king claims it’s not that simple, Callum fires back that it seems pretty simple to him.
Ultimately, you have a brash warrior, a shy mage unaware of his magical abilities, and a kid naive-to-the-point-of-wisdom trekking through a fantastical realm both familiar and fascinating with an honorable goal of doing what the adults in the room find too implausible to even try to attempt. It’s Avatar, but it’s not. The Dragon Prince is its own animal born from strikingly similar DNA and looking to spread its wings as wide as possible. Another breath of fresh magic from a seasoned creative crew.
Is it Friday yet?
4.5 out of 5