It’s officially been 13 years since the fire nation attacked in the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (“ATLA”), and 10 years since the beloved series ended. “ATLA,” praised for its remarkable storytelling, compelling characters and highly crafted world building, is revered as one of the greatest animated series of all time, according to IGN. The show was ahead of its time and vastly exceeded its expectations as a “kid’s cartoon.”
Luckily, former “ATLA” fans have another show to be excited about, one that purportedly has the potential to reach the bar their favorite show set a decade ago. The wait is over now, as the new Netflix series “The Dragon Prince” was released last week. But did it live up the hype?
So What Is “The Dragon Prince” About?
“The Dragon Prince” takes place in an epic fantasy world where humans, elves and magical creatures like dragons coexist. The world is heavily influenced by the six prime sources of magic: the sun, moon, stars, earth, sky and ocean. When the humans stumbled upon a seventh source of magic, dark magic, the harmony between humans and elves disappeared.
The elves, horrified by the power of dark magic, exiled humans to the half of the continent that lacked magic. To ensure the humans remained on their end of the world, the Dragon King himself guarded the border for centuries. Then, one day, he and his egg — the Dragon Prince — were murdered by humans.
After recounting the history of the fantasy world, “The Dragon Prince” begins in the human kingdom of Katolis, which is on the brink of war with the elves. The series narrows its focus on the king’s two sons: his stepson, Callum, and his younger son, Ezran. The story also highlights Rayla, a young moonshadow elf assassin tasked with murdering the human king and his rightful heir, Ezran, to avenge the death of the Dragon King and the Dragon Prince.
When Rayla confronts the princes and they discover the egg of the Dragon King was not destroyed but stolen, the three of them band together to return the egg to Xadia (the kingdom of the elves), hoping to inspire peace between humans and elves. From there, the story follows the three unlikely heroes as they journey to Xadia and try to evade capture from Katolis and the king’s shady advisor, Lord Viren, the original egg thief who’s been corrupted by the power of dark magic and is eager to steal the throne.
The Influence of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on “The Dragon Prince”
For starters, “The Dragon Prince” is co-created and co-written by Aaron Ehasz, the head writer for “ATLA,” so it’s no stretch to find storytelling parallels between the two series. For instance, Callum, the series’ protagonist, is voiced by none other than Jack De Sena. If his name sounds unfamiliar, his words won’t: He voiced the beloved “Avatar” character Sokka, the lame jokester, water tribesman, swordsman, strategist and doting older brother of Katara. Sokka’s humor and insecurities bleed into Callum’s character, which serves as a nostalgic callback to “ATLA.”
Like “ATLA” was influenced by the four elements — water, earth, fire and air — the world of “The Dragon Prince” is also influenced by elemental sources of magic. The show is divided into books and chapters based on these magic sources; the first nine episodes fall under book one: the moon. “ATLA” also followed this chronological format.
In “ATLA,” one phrase hammered home the series’ recurring theme: “Then everything changed when the fire nation attacked.” In “The Dragon Prince,” humans and elves are on the brink of war, meaning tensions are just as high as they were in the series’ progenitor. Also, in “ATLA,” the avatar, Aang, is destined to bring peace to the four nations by defeating the fire nation; likewise, in the Netflix series, returning the egg of the Dragon Prince will hopefully lead to peace between humans and elves.
On a lighter note, “The Dragon Prince” imagines strange magical creatures much like “ATLA.” It may be hard to compete with “ATLA” classics like platypus bears, lion turtles and flying bison, but “The Dragon Prince” holds its own, especially with the heroes’ iconic sidekick, Bait, the glow toad. In line with these wacky critters, “ATLA”’s quirky style of humor lives on in “The Dragon Prince.” The new show thrives off of puns and the awkward “ATLA” kind of humor, and it works.
“The Dragon Prince” and Diversity
For an epic fantasy that draws much of its inspiration from medieval Europe and Arthurian legend, the cast of characters isn’t as white or able-bodied as you’d expect. For starters, the relationship between the humans and elves has echoes of racial differences. While the elves are subject to prejudice — so much so that the princes have to reevaluate what they think they know about elves when they befriend Rayla — the long-eared creatures are not the series’ only nod to diversity. It’s also implied that there are different “races” of elves other than the moonshadow type Rayla identifies with.
To counter the white fantasy epic, “The Dragon Prince” makes the royal family mixed. King Harrow is black, his stepson, Callum, white, and his son, Ezran, mixed. I can’t lie and say the series is revolutionary; other than a couple background characters here and there, it’s predominately white. However, the show’s fantasy universe is still largely unexplored, so there might still be hope for a greater diversity of characters.
According to fan reactions, the breakout star and poster-woman for the series’ stab at diversity is General Amaya, the king’s most trusted ally and the princes’ aunt on their mother’s side, who is deaf. Her lack of hearing is an important part of who she is and how she interacts in the world. Her disability is by no means a sign of weakness though, as she is entrusted with guarding the border against elf invasion.
In an interview with Polygon, Ehasz admitted that while developing Amaya’s character as a natural born leader, he couldn’t help but pitch, “What if she’s also deaf?” After all, Toph, the blind but bold earth bender in “ATLA,” was incredibly well received by fans, so why not do the same with Amaya? To make her character come to life, senior writers Devon Giehl and Iain Hendry consulted scores of relevant professionals to ensure her deafness was accurately portrayed, right down to the precise animation and translation of her signing. In a genre that lacks disability representation, Amaya is a breath of fresh air.
The Series’ Potential Moving Forward
With only nine episodes under its belt, it’s really hard to judge “The Dragon Prince” as either a success or flop. Judging from fans’ reactions, the show appears to be developing into a success story. One thing is for sure, it’s unfair to compare it with “ATLA” this early on. The series needs room to grow before it can take on the heavyweight champ of animated series.
Weak points for the show to consider moving forward include its style of animation, which is caught somewhere between 2D and 3D. It’s certainly an acquired taste, though I suggest viewers give the story a chance before they dismiss it on animation style alone — I swear you get used to it.
However, there are moments where the animation seems choppy and out of sync, but that can probably be fixed with a bigger budget and more practice with the style. On a positive note, the visualization of magic is an amazing spectacle, and probably why animators chose the style in the first place. So, I’d say it was worth it.
Fans have admitted the story’s pacing seems rushed, leaving insufficient time for character growth and world building. Personally, I’d chalk that up to having only nine episodes to make an impression and spur interest for more seasons. This season is obviously introductory, but it had to effectively market the show’s potential. Give the story, characters and world time to grow and develop, and suddenly pace will find its natural rhythm — so stay calm, and trust the writers to find that tempo.
All in all, I’d say “The Dragon Prince” is worthy enough to uphold the legacy of “ATLA.” Yes, it has its kinks, but given time, it has potential to rise above expectations and holds its own against its predecessor. And as someone who holds onto “ATLA” as a precious piece of my childhood, I can say that “The Dragon Prince” helps fill that void.