The Dragon Prince is going to be… big.
This is not because it is good, necessarily—although I think that it is, with the potential to be great. (More on that in a second.) It’s also not because it comes from some of the creative talent behind the massively beloved Avatar: the Last Airbender—although it does—or even that it’s riding into Netflix’s lineup on the heels of the platform’s first triumphant AtLA-legacy project, Voltron: Legendary Defender—although it is.
Mostly, The Dragon Prince is going to be big because Netflix has decided it will be, and has been carefully seeding the ground with such rich fandom fodder that the series debuted on Tumblr’s Fandometrics TV Shows list this week at No. 19, despite not yet airing a single episode. There are already dailytdp Twitter and Tumblr accounts (“daily+property” is a common framing in the fandom curatorial space) and leagues of fandom in-jokes, of which the most prominent disseminator is easily the official The Dragon Prince Twitter account , who recently tweeted a canonical chart listing the heights, ages, and birthdays of all the “revealed” characters (with and without horns), presumably for fans to make even more detailed art and fanfic from and not to confirm for me that my type has officially aged into “dad-ish” territory, although it for sure did that. On the same day The Dragon Prince drops, plushies of the human princes’ chameleon-toad-dog pet, Bait, will go on sale online at Hot Topic, along with, we have been promised, so much more.
Like I said: The Dragon Prince is going to be big.
Thank goodness, then, that the show really is good. Or, at least, it is beautiful to look at, with a world and characters whose introductions in the three episodes provided for review promise fantastical fun and epic complexity in equal measure. The fact that it immediately reads as ‘AtLa, but with Moon Elves’ doesn’t hurt—all AtLA fans have ever wanted is more of the stories of elemental magic, friendship and war they loved, told by the writers, actors and directors they loved. AtLA’s Aaron Ehasz, Jack De Sena and Giancarlo Volpe coming together to tell the story of the war-torn land of Xadia, whose magic comes from six elemental sources instead of four (Sun, Moon, Stars, Earth, Sky, Ocean), whose magic-wielders include not just humans, but elves and dragons, too, and whose world is full of the same kinds of oddball mashup animals and inventive magical fight sequences as AtLA’s was, is basically catnip. Or Bait-nip, as the Xadian case may be.
It’s not just the building blocks that resemble Avatar: the Last Airbender, either. The real-world references in Xadia may correspond more to European sword-and-sorcery fantasy than to the spirit-based Asian fantasy of the Avatar’s world, but both visually and narratively, The Dragon Prince echoes many of the best parts of Ehasz and Volpe’s previous project. For example, it takes all of seven seconds for the Appa-like (but Momo-sized) Bait to show up after pressing play on the pilot, and five of those belong to the official red-and-white Netflix title card. Then, when the episode officially opens, it does so on a flock of ethereally beautiful, six-eyed butterfly cranes with long, green-fire tails winging their way across an expanse of shimmering aquamarine water, who quickly become dwarfed by the gigantic, hyper-realistic eye of the enormous dragon winging his own way through their ranks. The small and the big, in delicate, epic balance: That’s AtLA fans’ jam.
On the narrative front, the story of The Dragon Prince also resembles that of Avatar: the Last Airbender, from the formal level—where it’s told not in seasons and episodes but in books and chapters, the first being “Book 1: Moon” (the moon elves are a major part of Xadia’s mythology)—to the storytelling level, where it’s focused on a small group of powerful-but-goofy young people (and their magical pet beasties) on a mission to save the world from eternal war, pursued by malevolent adults whose personal power is tied up in said war not ending anytime soon.
That said, for all the major points of familiarity it shares with Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, The Dragon Prince is its own beast. On the animation front, it is using Bardel Entertainment (of Teen Titans Go! and Rick and Morty) instead of AtLA’s Studio Mir, which has resulted in some genuinely stunning layering of styles and, I don’t know what you would call it, mechanical fluidity? AtLA was rightfully praised for its innovative elemental fight scenes, but with actual sorcery in the mix, The Dragon Prince can do some innovation of its own. For example, in the third episode, dark sorceress teen Claudia (Raquel Belmonte) chants a pair of black-smoke wolves into existence to chase down moon elf assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows) and human princes Callum (Jack De Sena) and Ezran (Sasha Rojen), and the interplay of the vibrant fuschia light in their magicked eyes and teeth with the roiling matte black of their smoky haunches is mesmerizing. Then there’s the translucent multi-colored glimmering of the lost dragon egg and the transparent darkness of the moon elves at full power, which, when matched with the sharply etched high-fantasy styling of the dragons, combine to make The Dragon Prince a visually rich collage of the familiar and the surprising.
Narratively, too, there are differences between AtLA and The Dragon Prince, although those differences are less positive. Where AtLA (and, later, Legend of Korra) shone was in the emotional nuances it gave every character, both central and auxiliary, and the emotional grayness of the battles those emotionally rich characters had to fight on their way to win the ultimate war. In its first three episodes, The Dragon Prince establishes some moral grayness for the characters to encounter, but as the humans en masse are essentially the Fire Nation of Xadia—that is, the power-hungry aggressors bringing everyone else misery—it’s a challenge not to see the moon elf assassins as just in their mission to take vengeance for their murdered dragon king and heir, even as the story starts in the human king’s palace, three hundred years after the world split in two, and lodges our sympathies with the good-hearted human king and princes and their good-natured dark mage friends. The king alludes to the grayness when trying to explain the nature of endless war to his stepson, Callum, and later straight up shouts that “[Dark magic is] a shortcut!” after his dark mage advisor insists that using dark magic is “clever, brilliant, and practical.” In both cases, though, that telling lacks the emotional punch of AtLA, even early in that series’ first, more lightweight season. Between this and the narrative holes that are meant to be mysterious but just play as irritating (what happened to the king’s wife; what happened to the king himself) The Dragon Prince gets off to a surprisingly hollow start.
That said, AtLA’s epic scope allowed it to build so much complexity into its story that it cast a richer shadow back onto its own early episodes. There’s no reason not to expect the same thing to happen here. Xadia’s particular blend of black sorcery and elemental magic offers a lot of storytelling possibilities (already, the moon elves’ death pact made them sound like ultra metal Scottish Planeteers, which I was not expecting but thoroughly enjoyed), and Ehasz et al. have the background to turn those possibilities into the most affecting outcomes. With the long lead Netflix gives its creators, all that complexity is almost certainly bound to come.
In the meantime, Netflix will make sure the fandom has all the Bait plushies and fanfic fodder it needs to survive a magical apocalypse.
The Dragon Prince is now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.