Netflix released The Dragon Prince this weekend, a new fantasy story by the writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Senior Reporter Cecilia D’Anastasio and Staff Writer Heather Alexandra sat down to talk about what they liked and whether or not it can live up to Airbender’s pedigree.
Cecilia D’Anastasio: Heather, hello! Today, we’re talking about The Dragon Prince, a show that presumes to follow in the footsteps of writer Aaron Ehasz’s famous (and beloved) television show Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is a kids’ fantasy show that debuted last Friday on Netflix, and somehow (despite a lot of bitching and moaning), I watched it all. You have as well. Maybe you can already tell how I feel. But before we go there, tell me—what were your expectations going into this?
Heather Alexandra: I was really excited, if cautious. I have a lot of fond memories of watching Avatar in high school. It was popular to the point that some of us (including a teacher) would watch new episodes on a projector each week. I expected something light and fun, with lots of fun characters, and I got exactly that.
D’Anastasio: I saw Avatar in high school too! And agree with Kotaku editor Kirk Hamilton that it is “One Of The Greatest TV Shows Of All Time.”
* whispers * seeeecret tunnel....
Alexandra: I think about that cabbage guy a lot.
But yeah, The Dragon Prince has a lot of expectations to shoulder and while I don’t think everything came together this season, I think it tapped into enough of its pedigree to make me really excited for whatever comes next.
D’Anastasio: Let’s talk a little about how it’s set up. Do you want to take it away here? What’s the premise of the show?
Alexandra: Alright! In the land of Xadia, there’s humans and elves that do very human and elf-y things. But one day, a sorcerer creates dark magic and causes a long war between the two races that takes a nasty turn when the humans kill Thunder the Dragon King (he big) and destroy the egg of the dragon prince. Years later, the story zooms in on the human kingdom of Katolis. The princes Ezran and Callum are living their good life with their cool dad until the night that the elves make an assassination attempt on his life. Hilarity ensues.
D’Anastasio: Hilarity? Did you find the show funny?
Alexandra: It’s a turn of phrase, but yeah. I think this show manages that balance of intrigue and cartoon jokes really well. At one moment you’ll have Ezran’s little ploopy lizard pet Bait stealing some jelly tarts, and then you have Rayla—one of the elf assassins—spare a guard because she can’t find the heart to kill someone.
D’Anastasio: And that one generic jelly tart vignette was the single moment of personality Ezran and his lizard ever gave us. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show more generic than this.
Or at least, one that rode on genero-fantasyland tropes as hard to fill its characters with charm.
Alexandra: I was going to ask if we should get to the elephant in the room, which was that you didn’t like this show very much. For my part, I think this show is using familiar tropes as grounding to do fun character work, but I understand how it might seem a bit too earnest sometimes.
D’Anastasio: I love earnest. Again—Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my all-time favorite shows. I’m also a noted anime freak. What I don’t love is getting super pumped up about a show only to learn, after binging it all, it is irredeemably bad. I don’t know why basically none of the reviews said it. It is baffling to me. But from the show’s choppy, unexpressive CGI animation (seriously, I thought my internet was dying) to its big-enough-to-fit-the-dragon-king-into plot holes, I was so disappointed.
When I referenced that disappointment to you earlier this morning, you mentioned it’s a kid’s show. How does that play into how we’re meant to watch it, in your opinion?
Alexandra: I don’t think this show is bad at all; I think it is really good, especially if you meet it on its own terms. This is a road-trip with a magical veneer. Once we learn that the dragon prince’s egg survived and the princes leave with Rayla to return it to the elves, it’s basically an “of the week” mismatched buddy show and that can be a lot of fun. Besides, you need to build a world before you can deconstruct or subvert it.
D’Anastasio: A road trip? Remember the time the main party was in the woods, on the long journey to the winter house, all set up for a fun sub-plot (a la Avatar) and then all of a sudden, BLAM, a minute later, there it is! The place you go for another season!
I really think kid’s shows have the power to be the most interesting, emotionally intelligent and well-written media out there. And have a huge potential audience. So I don’t really get what The Dragon Prince’s “terms” are. I feel like kid’s shows have earned their own high standards!
Alexandra: I think even with these nine episodes and the faster pace, which is honestly too fast, there’s still a fair amount done. Rayla’s a standout for me in the main cast because of how much she goes through in terms of range. And I think The Dragon Prince has a far more interesting villain with Viren than The Last Airbender ever manages with Ozai.
This is a pretty honest show. It wants to make some jokes, tease some ships, and build a colorful world. Maybe more comes of that later, particularly the really heartbreaking or genre-busting stuff, but I think The Dragon Prince wants to be like cotton candy and less like a hearty meal for now.
D’Anastasio: I’ll give it this: There was a little genre-busting. The show did a great job with representation, which is rare in fantasy. I LOVED the auntie character who is a knight and communicates by signing.
Alexandra: Amaya’s fantastic! I think the cast, especially the extended cast, is one of my favorites for a show like this. Amaya’s a great example. She’s a tough knight with her own personal reasons for standing against Viren, but she’s also someone who has to navigate her own feeling about elves and whatever trust she may or may not have in the princes. She feels like a real person, which makes the representational aspect even better.
For a show that’s very broad in many ways, I think it’s really intimate and careful with its cast.
D’Anastasio: Exactly, yeah. She was one of the few exceptions to the show’s apparent rule against giving characters discernible personalities ;)
Okay, tell me this. Remember that one scene? With the magical snake?
Alexandra: The soul-switching magical snake that Viren totally didn’t use?
D’Anastasio: Okay, you know I run and write a lot of Dungeons & Dragons games. I’ve read a lot of expository fantasy bullshit. Nothing, and I mean nothing, tops how contrived the soulfang serpent monologue reads:
And—by the way—they never use the damn thing! All of this build-up, with the camera angles, the dramatic tone, all of it for nothing! What the hell! Why the set-up? All the time, the show introduced things like this and did nothing with them. Or, worse, there would be some easily-thought-of magical solution to an issue, like using two nearby sorcerers’ unbelievably potent dark magic to try and make sure the king didn’t get killed, that nobody even considered!
Alexandra: They 100% used it.
Alexandra: He switched the King’s soul with his hawk. Bet you a lunch on it.
D’Anastasio: A likely theory......... never borne out in the entire first season! At the very least, it is a pacing issue.
Alexandra: Totally, and one borne out of the episode limitations. Which, I agree, do cause problems. Sometimes, they side-step that clumsiness. Take Rayla’s band, for instance. As the season progress, it grips her tighter and tighter until she can’t use that hand at all. Once the adorable dragon prince Azymondias hatches, he bites it off without much fanfare and that tells us a lot about how strong and special dragons are.
So, you have this cool moment, but it’s also subtle. The soulfang thing is similar; it’s this big conflict for Viren and the King but it’s (presumably) resolved offscreen so quietly that it almost feels like the gun was left on the mantle without firing at all.
D’Anastasio: Well put, Heather!
Alexandra: You’ve been talking about the characters and how they didn’t click entirely for you. What would you have liked to have seen out of Callum and the others? Especially Callum because he’s voiced by Jack De Sena.
D’Anastasio: Callum is a boy who has all the opportunity in the world to be a fancy prince, but just isn’t good at sword-fighting or girls or asserting himself. However, he is good at art and, it turns out, can do magic all right under pressure. I’m not saying I could have guessed every detail about him from the first episode, and remained entirely unsurprised by anything he did throughout the next eight, but.... yeah, I am, actually.
Throw me a curveball, Dragon Prince! Callum was a vehicle for the audience to learn about the world and about magic. What if he had a pen pal he communicates with in the mountains? What if he raised chickens? What if he decides to use his new magic skills to get in touch with his mom? And then he gets into necromancy and, BOY, does that go south! Just some suggestions.
Alexandra: I’m not so sure about the chickens, but I think you’re right that there will be chances to do interesting stuff with magic. Callum is a bit strange to me, loveable goofball that he is, because it often doesn’t feel like this is even really his story. It feels more like Rayla’s at the moment.
D’Anastasio: Totally. Which, you know, shrug. Any parting words for The Dragon Prince? Hopes and dreams for a second season?
Alexandra: More episodes. I think this first season has a really warm cast and is fun to watch, but the pacing means we don’t get to really soak it in and see more growth. I’d love if whatever comes next isn’t as afraid to slow down because I think the fundamentals are a lot of fun. Also: more Bait. Preferably in plushy form, at my desk.
D’Anastasio: I agree. More Bait. Bait is adorable. And, please, more slice-of-life (if I do tune in for more, which is looking unlikely). It’s what a lot of us loved about Avatar. Thanks for chatting, Heather.