With a creative team coming off Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars, Uncharted, and Justice League, the new animated series The Dragon Prince, now streaming on Netflix,was building hype before prospective viewers even knew what they hyping over. Even in the face of these high expectations, the show, which mixes CGI and traditional 2D art, kicks off with an impressive introduction. If it maintains its level of quality while continuing to chase its ambitious goals, The Dragon Prince could be a worthy successor to the team’s past projects.
[Ed. note: This post contains very light spoilers for the first three episodes of The Dragon Prince]
The first episode sets the scene for an epic conflict: 1,000 years of warfare, six mystical elements (and the comparatively new, dangerous Dark Magic) a human kingdom under siege by Moonshadow elves and a cast of compelling characters caught in the middle of it all. The show has the unenviable task of introducing us to this massive world in the first episode, and they take the approach of giving us the very big picture, with a quick rundown of the last thousand years of war.
Then, we zoom right in on our core cast of characters: Rayla, a Moonshadow assassin who takes pride in her people but is hesitant to kill, and the Princes Callum and Ezran, who are royal step-brothers.
From there, The Dragon Prince homes in on little stories while building up the world and connecting the small-scale struggles of individual struggles to the overall struggle. It’s a difficult task; fantasy concepts like a massive dragon king roaring on mountains, mobilizing his armies against the humans are awesome and visually impressive… but to stick it all needs to mean something. We need to care. Thankfully, when Rayla meets Callum and Ezran and they set out to deliver the unscathed Dragon Prince’s egg back home in an effort to avert war, we do care. Their journey means something, both to the individual characters and for the world as a wh
Our main trio, Callum, Ezran, and Rayla are up to the task. Callum and Ezran are in a mixed family; their mother has passed, and Callum is a step-prince, which leads to a few whiffs of scorn and signs of tension. The entire world seems set to define the differences between people — whether that is an elf’s horns and long ears, or a prince and a step-prince — and the lessons haven’t sunk in for the youngest members of the cast yet. Reyla, a Moonshadow Elf, is hesitant to kill and quick to trust humans. Our heroes are starting to build connections in the world, but they live in societies that are on the verge of a war after conflict and violence on both sides.
It is a tricky thing to build empathy with heroes meant to appeal to kids while building a dark and dangerous fantasy world. Not only does the show need to balance the epic fantasy world-building with relatable individual storylines, but they can’t steer too dark. On the other hand, too many jokes, and the show would veer into bathos.
“We always try to be as true to the characters as we can. When Giancarlo was boarding the show, which was a Herculean task, and I know we’d ask him ‘What do you think about the bigger conflict?’ and he’d reply ‘We need a joke here, guys, this is so heavy.’ I think there are a lot of people pushing from a lot of angles, and I think everyone really respects the characters. That’s the main thing.”
Relying on the characters, who are ids, automatically frames the plot at the right level of light-heartedness, even in a dark world. It helps that the characters are genuinely fun and relatable; they win your heart nearly immediately and hang onto it throughout the first three episodes.
“I’m glad we’re taking that approach instead of making a show that was silly all the way through, or just dark. I think I’d be bored if I was working on a show that was just grimdark,” Richmond says. “We do go to some dark places, but we don’t wallow in it. There are consequences, people die … but we make a lot of time making sure we balance it out.”
Once we’re on board with our heroes — an empathetic assassin, a young man with the soul of an artist who struggles with a sword, a good-hearted kid who’s more interested in jelly tarts than political intrigue — The Dragon Prince starts expanding the world and filling in the details of it’s sweeping introduction.
The humans have picked up dark magic and have done terrible things. At FanExpo Toronto, a fan took the opportunity during the Q&A to ask why the humans are seemingly the undisciplined jerks of this fantasy world. Volpe and Richmond laughed, but they couldn’t give a straight answer, and part of that is that the show starts to reveal both sides as flawed. The original narrative is skewed, and the truth is more complicated and blurred. This world is defined by generational conflict, and the main three of Rayla, Ezran, and Callum are defying that tradition by setting out on their own when they discover the Dragon Prince’s egg is intact and he can still be saved, hence stopping the war.
The Dragon Prince is more than just one season of Netflix television; Volpe and Richmond are clearly excited at the idea of follow-up series, and there’s a video game in the works as well. “I’ve never worked on a linear project like this before,” said Richmond. “I’ve only worked in games. The games I worked on were all done at the same time, your development window is it. So with this, we started with a bunch of playthings and a very general idea of where we’re going, where the characters are going. And as we wrote it, things changed.” A voice actor might change a role, or the crew realized something needed to be sillier, or more serious. The show adapted. “I think we have a pretty good sense of where we’re going with this. We have a plan, and an idea, but we get to do exploratory fun stuff once in a while like oh my god! I never thought of that!”
“The game is there to expand the idea of the world.” Volpe adds. “We want to tell more. We want to share more.” If the first three episodes of The Dragon Prince are any indication, the world is more than rich and engaging enough to support those ambitions.