How did Netflix beat Forgotten Realms and D&D to the animated sword * sorcery fantasy punch?
I wish I could waste your time beginning this by diving into deeper meanings and thematic weight present in The Dragon Prince but the first thing that comes to mind is just an honest this thing is awesome.
What makes it fun is that it emanates a sheen of effortlessness that only comes with the exact opposite, being painstakingly well thought out and executed. A bunch of people gave a shit.
I had no idea what The Dragon Prince was when it popped up on Netflix excluding wondering how random it was that someone might have adapted the novels of Melanie Rawn (which is completely unrelated).
I watched the entire first season in one sitting and when I was done I ran it back. With that in mind and if you read my thoughts on To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before you probably would understand when I say I feel like I’m currently residing in some personal sweet spot of the current Netflix algorithm.
The Dragon Prince embraces ’80s style module fantasy adventures and concepts but animated with modern sensibility that informs them to use classic backgrounds. I’ve seen a portion of viewers not liking it but for me it works. I won’t say there are frame rate issues that can’t be tweaked but I have to admit I was so invested in the story and have a personal way that I watch movies or tv, including live action, that the mechanics of action is among the least of my interests.
Before that take drives you crazy let me give an example. For instance, I’ll take people who like to say (every. single. chance. they. get.) in Phantom Menace the Darth Maul versus Ben & Qui-Gon is the greatest lightsaber scene in Star Wars
… and I’m like maybe…
… but I don’t give a shit about anything anyone has said or how they said it in the film so by that point I’m checked out even though John Williams is backing it up with one of his very best efforts.
It’s very much like chase scenes for me which people love and love to rank (I have a personal affinity to one in Ronin) and for me I just fast-forward them in my mind because no matter how cool a set piece is it’s very rare that I feel it can’t be removed with almost no loss of story. It’s in some way my personal yada yada. That said, you give me Indiana Jones, Short Round, & Willie in a mine cart and I’m in cinematic heaven so go figure.
As long as there is emotional resonance when whatever is occurring is occurring I’m good, which is why for me the duels of Luke & Vader in both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are vastly superior to me – they accumulated an earned meaning and are exclamations to what has been building – finishing flourishes to what came before. Phantom Menace is not unlike a beautifully orchestrated flash mob situation to me. I like action, hell, I love action, but it’s never what decides anything for me – and to be honest I dug the action in The Dragon Prince anyway.
And to be a jackass about it for a minute, I watched it with my goddaughter on a 100+ inch TV that almost cost more than my childhood home and at no time did either I or the millennial in the room remark on any inadequacies of the action so while I respect the hardcore fans of animation or the crafting of it, there is a place for that for sure on an internet where is there space for everything, but I’m somewhat baffled at it being used as a central takeaway from The Dragon Prince, because it’s so well paced and feels so well thought out. There’s so much good here in story. I realize there are people who take their cartoons seriously but I don’t know… why lol.
In fact while watching it what I kept on thinking about was how in the world isn’t there a Dungeons & Dragons or Forgotten Realms show of any kind that is this good? Why are Drow a secret exclusive to current 40+ year old males and not every kid’s new favorite dual wielding Halloween ambition?
As a lifelong fan of speculation fiction I really love me some lore and unlike literary examples animation doesn’t allow for appendices, backmatter, and somewhat of an unlimited budget in the form of page count, and what The Dragon Prince does is throw out terms that demand me to mentally bookmark, illustrating understanding by characters within the world that we don’t have, and that they would not expound upon in unjilted dialogue.
It’s an example of the entirely overused but still pertinent show not tell conceit that makes you wait to find out just why Moonshadow elves are near unbeatable under a new moon and even now, after watching the entire first season twice, I still have a need to find out more about the Sunforged Equipment and what Pop-up I need to look out for to get me some.
When you introduce cool things, even just cool sounding things, like this you are creating the feeling of a larger world, a world that has even more fantastic elements than what we see in the main story, something that elven assassins and wizards alike marvel at themselves.
The best epic fantasy novels and series do this, from Tolkien to more contemporary sagas like my personal favorite Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Even in more grounded, or at least a series with the facade of being more grounded, like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, do this extremely well with faraway locations like Asshai or Yi Ti. The world existed before we arrived and most of it won’t know of our passing.
Even when following an epic quest the feeling that there are thousands of other wonders in the world that I both can’t wait to see and won’t ever see, can’t ever see in a single lifetime is enticing. After watching it twice I love the feeling that there is much more I missed and along with that the knowledge of if even if I never do make those discoveries I still have something special.
These are story elements that can only be additives and never detract from the fundamental quality of the surface story. In a video game these are the sidequests that we often spend more time on than the actual A-plot itself. It’s the allure of possibility and expansion and the absence of limits: an open world.
I also enjoy that the relevant cast seems to grow and all of them have designs that rival those that we met at the very beginning. The back third of the first season introduces characters at a time that a regular cartoon would not still be adding to the main stage, and I don’t know if it’s the half-Japanese in me, but Ellis & Ava showing up had me all types of spirited away in my feelings.
This continued buildup is common in japanese anime because the source materials are often long and still building sagas themselves that have to introduce new stories and characters inhabiting them all the time.
Also, how badass is General Amaya? How awesome is her introduction to a deaf child or, damn it, a deaf adult who doesn’t see this everyday on television, and it occurs without announcement or spotlight, it just is, it feels right, we don’t question anything we just enjoy this world.
Everyone, even true side characters, feel like they have history. The man we meet with the sweet Sunforged sword has lived a life. He had a story and the weariness of surviving that felt real. I’m also obsessed with Sunforged gear, which was mentioned multiple times, and has overtaken Supreme and BAPE as my brand of choice.
I don’t think I’d have much of an exclusive on the opinion that the main quest thread taken up by Callum, Rayla and Ezran, seems to be unnaturally slowed down in the last two to three episodes that even my affection for Ellis & Ava don’t allow to go unnoticed.
I think it may have been to allow Claudia and Soren’s journey time to mature which either has me conflicted or perhaps eases the potential conflict because I so much enjoy their relationship and their mere existence because in another cartoon these would have been stock characters that we stopped having conflicts over, that had nothing else to offer, that are on a clearly defined path following the main party and instead they are a die cast that I’m not sure where will land.
They have choices to make.
This could easily be one without the other, one child not two, chasing the group with the real story but instead we get a sibling pair who very much feel like they have both a shared story together and ones of their own ahead. They are also my candidates for being one of the two that will be the first to meet an end as the story implications for the survivor seem fairly obvious.
While they are alive though I delighted in the feeling that while obviously they are tracking our other main characters, they could easily go another way and carry a different story for me. This is set up both by strength of their characters and interaction but also throughout the show, a product of the aforementioned open world feel.
I dig their father too because he exists as this figure that I think is the only guy who knows wtf is going on and yet at other times is just winging it and has no handle on any situation, especially his kids. This makes him realistic to me because I reject the world, both fictional and our own, where we think there are people who have it so put together that they actually purposely manipulate the world with any level of regularity and success in any real tangible regard (i.e. I don’t mean how fire your Instagram is.)
We literally live in a world where among millions of our species’ largest desires is to have an edit button on twitter (which if you think about just for 5 seconds is bafflingly stupid) so I’m typically out on illuminatic figures coming from this pool.
He is the pragmatic figure we need in a world of quests and coming of age threads though and when you combine that with a unique talent and an ultra petty streak with a simpleton Kanye-esque self-involvement you get an antagonist that can keep you off balance.
I don’t know if this makes sense but he strikes me as a figure with very dark thoughts without being a stock dark figure even though I can go down the official fantasy Dark Figure checklist and you’d run out of ink with Viren. You can almost hear or feel him thinking in his scenes and there’s something in realizing you’re watching a cartoon character consider and break bad that’s pretty amazing.
When considering stateside animation releases my more recent vices have been Steven Universe and Archer and I’m looking forward to new Young Justice (my favorite of the DC animated efforts – maybe my favorite DC anything) but there are far more misses for me and The Dragon Prince only had an advantage in opportunity appealing to the young kid who grew up reading epic and sword & sorcery fantasy. I’d try it out for the love of that genre but it also comes with built in standards associated with someone who has read literally thousands of those novels & ran a website that covered them for a decade.
I came away thinking The Dragon Prince is well worth anyone’s time and to continue what I mentioned above about my initial Dragon Prince experience, how I immediately rewatched it right after completing it the first time around and after that I felt the need to look for merch for me and my goddaughter. It’s just something cool you want to be a part of and share.
Except remove the “just” because shared joy is important.