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The Dragon Prince Remains Frustratingly Short of Greatness

Full spoilers for Season 2 of The Dragon Prince.

The Dragon Prince is so close to greatness. Just looking at the sum of its parts, you’d expect it to be the best animated show currently airing, or at least in the conversation. The setting stands out positively. The mythology is deep and interesting. All of the characters have fun, lovable personalities with real flaws to provide depth, as well as consistent characterization. There are multiple badass characters with disabilities, a lesbian couple ruling a kingdom, and characters of a variety of skin colors to provide representation. The animal characters possess all the charm and personality you expect from one of the main writers behind The Last Airbender.

Even the controversial animation from season 1 cleaned up a bit!

Still, creator Aaron Ehasz and company remain short of the picture all these positive pieces should blend together to form. It’s all there. It’s all good, in its own way. They just need to find some way to finally blend it together into the powerhouse that The Dragon Prince should be.

the dragon prince lava blade

Season 2 basically continues the good things about season 1, and improves some of the flaws. The animation improvement stood out immediately; while still somewhat awkward, much of the stuttering has vanished, allowing the gorgeous visuals to stand out more. This especially stands out during pre-episode recaps, which show the terrible stutter during season 1 scenes. The animation kept many away in season 1. I don’t think season 2 has anything close to the same flaw.

The main cast continues to be intriguing, compelling, and most importantly well-written. Every character remains faithful to the journeys begun in season 1. Like with most shows of this nature, there is a heavy focus on young characters finding themselves against the backdrop of world-threatening conflict. Callum still struggles with the use of magic and his place in the world. Ezran gradually comes to terms with the responsibilities of his bloodline. Rayla grows closer to them while trying to find a new place outside of a Moonshadow elf assassin.

I like each of their journeys, especially as the second half of the season kicks things into gear and forces challenges upon each of them. Callum, especially, stands out to me. He is the closest thing to a main character on The Dragon Prince and bears this storytelling burden well. After smashing Claudia’s stolen primal stone in season 1, he struggles anew with his taste of magic and his usefulness in the group’s journey to return Zym home.

This results in a choice near the end of the season that forces Callum into an existential crisis. While the eventual resolution of said crisis is nothing unexpected, it still felt mostly earned, and I’m happy for him. He’s just a really well done character. Funny, smart, resourceful, and yet open to ideas and people who can possibly lead him astray. I look forward to seeing his resolve tested moving forward, because it definitely will be.

The supporting cast fares less well, in my opinion.

I expect this will be a source of disagreement for many, especially regarding Claudia and Soren. I can see why people love their characters. Personally, I find them strange and uncertain. I’m not sure The Dragon Prince really knows what they want the audience to think of them. If they do, they’re having a hard time communicating it. On one hand they have numerous scenes aimed at entertaining you and making you think they can change. On the other, they double down in many ways on the worst of their crimes. Claudia, especially, seems no closer to a potential redemption than she was to begin the season.

What really bothers me about these two is the way the narrative never really acknowledges their bad actions and decisions. Soren tries to kill a child—badly and half-heartedly, but if not for a timely intervention he likely would have succeeded. Claudia pretty cruelly manipulates Callum and does terrible things to fuel her dark magic. Yet the show has them joking around and clearly expecting the audience to like them on some level. They continuously make the wrong choices.

Soren does eventually face consequences for his actions in the form of a gruesome injury towards the end of the season, and I appreciate that. It doesn’t change how the writing struggles with the line between treating them like villains and treating them like anti-heroes who will redeem.

Neither does it help that by the end of the season, there seems to be a split forming where Soren will be redeemed but Claudia will not. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this direction, but season 2 makes me worry about the execution. I don’t want Claudia to be another Azula, who despite being an excellent villain had many flaws in her portrayal that shouldn’t be overlooked so easily in today’s entertainment landscape.

Besides, Claudia is absolutely not on Azula’s level.

Ultimately, despite all the good qualities, I think The Dragon Prince is still struggling with all these characters. I’m not sure I can properly explain what feels so…off about them. There’s definitely a weakness to some of the dialogue. Much of their journeys feels like old ground retread. I’m still waiting for a spark of originality to really bind me to these character journeys. I can appreciate and recognize good character development, but I either need a compelling twist on the familiar formula or especially effective storytelling.

Despite the improvements, I wonder if there is an animation problem responsible for much of the awkwardness I feel in the writing. I recognize the flow and cadence of the dialogue and jokes. As a Last Airbender fan who usually rewatches the show once a year, I know this style and I know it should land more often than The Dragon Prince lands it.

The reason I wonder about the animation is because of the amount of awkward timing during conversations and jokes. Often you see these weird pauses before or after punch lines. Or the same pauses will interrupt the flow of a conversation. It makes me think the lines have to follow the animation of the characters, which delays the voice acting enough to create a noticeable awkwardness.

Or maybe it’s just a pacing problem, something plaguing this show since day 1.

I can’t help but feel like this season made mistakes with the time spent in certain locations and the speed with which events happen. Dragon Prince doesn’t waste time or needlessly meander; I’d say rather that it struggles with spending the proper time on certain things, only to realize they need to get moving and resolve it a bit too quick. The impact of the decisions leading to his injury, followed by the consequences of it, vanish in an instant.

Soren’s injury is really well done, as is Claudia’s reaction to it, only to have Claudia act to resolve it within minutes. It’s not poorly handled, but it feels…abrupt. Same thing with Ezran’s decision to accept his kingship at the end of the season. It’s not out of character or out of nowhere, but we don’t really see Ezran struggle with the decision before making it.

Looking back, I can’t really say “this needed to be cut” or “this was a bad decision.” It makes complete sense why the group stays at the Cursed Caldera so long, for example. I still feel like it was too long, or that the decisions within this stay should have been different. While the major plot beats of the season are strong, I can’t help but feel like some of them lack impact and feel a bit perfunctory. Things happen too quickly or don’t elicit the reaction you expect.

Callum’s major culmination of his arc occurs when he uses dark magic for the first time, leaving him physically and mentally adrift. It’s one of the stronger moments of the season, but the resolution leaves something to desire. When Callum wakes up, he has discovered a way to tap into the primal forces of sky magic. We’re told this is impossible for humans, that they lack the ability to make this connection.

Yet Callum’s breakthrough is treated more like, “oh neat, you found a dollar on the ground,” then any kind of awe-inspiring display of power they thought impossible.

I have this feeling about numerous moments. Near the end of the season, Rayla seems to be on the verge of confessing love for Callum. Fine, I guess, they’ve been through some stuff together. The problem is that I never, ever felt like there was any kind of romantic connection between them. Rayla consistently treats Callum and Ezran like little brothers, without a hint of romantic attraction. Callum never shows interest in anyone but Claudia.

I’m clearly supposed to feel something when Rayla nearly confesses. All I feel is confusion. I also don’t feel much about Viren as the main antagonist of the show. His gradual submission to Aarovos is certainly compelling on paper, but struggles with the same problems in pacing and execution as other plot points. I understand how it happened and why. It just feels sudden between Viren discussing Aarovos and his decision to give in.

It’s like the season has the plot points it wants to hit, and sometimes puts in the work for them, but not always. Neither does it help that so little time has passed in-universe since the first episode of the show. We’re talking literally a couple of weeks or so. And overall, I feel like we’re still waiting for things to truly begin.

When it hits, though, Dragon Prince really hits hard. A pair of episodes near the midway point of the season flashes back to the origins of King Harrow’s reign and the events which led him to eventually hunt and kill the Dragon King. The story is told very similarly to “The Storm” from Book 1 of The Last Airbender, with two characters each hearing one side of the telling; Viren tells it to a young princess in hopes of persuading her to his side, while Callum reads the letter Harrow left him last season.

This storytelling was the show at its best. It’s emotional, dramatic, well-told, beautiful storytelling that provides important lore, worldbuilding, and characterization. Episodes like these show what Dragon Prince is really capable of. It also makes the weaker moments stand out.

Unfortunately, the Harrow flashback also has a sin I’m curious to see the reaction to; a potential Bury Your Gays moment with the lesbian queens ruling an allied country named Duren. It is with the goal of helping them that they set out on the quest the flashbacks show. In a moment of highly questionable sacrifice, the two queens hold off an attacking dragon in order to let the others get away.

I love that Dragon Prince introduced these two characters. I’m also curious what others think of their quick, and frankly questionably executed, death scene. I’m mostly okay with it, but the way it went down left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

(Though their deaths allow the introduction of their daughter, the young Queen Aanya, who jumps right off the screen in her brief scenes this season. I really want more of her.)

This quest also includes a familiar storytelling device to any fan of Avatar, as Harrow’s wife and the mother of Callum and Ezran also sacrifices herself mere moments after the Queens of Duren do. Except this time she isn’t just someone mentioned in the background, driving the plot without the audience ever getting to know her. I really like that we get to see this, as her death is shown as the crux leading Harrow to kill the Dragon King, which leads to the Moonshadow elves attack that kicks off the series. It’s also good to get some characterization for the dead mom for once. Sarai definitely leans towards the idealized side of things, but she’s a fun, passionate character and I hope we get more flashbacks of her.

Her sister Amaya is still around, after all…

The true queen of my heart.

In the end, I hope I’m coming across as liking this season because I did. Dragon Prince improved in areas it needed to and has built a highly intriguing world and lore. I went in not sure if I would continue with the show. I left it looking forward to a third season.

It just…it needs a spark.

I still don’t feel like The Dragon Prince has found the fundamental identity that will elevate it to its greatest heights. Compared to its animated Netflix counterparts (She-Ra and Carmen Sandiego), I don’t feel like it has a strong sense of the story being told and the unique style by which they tell it. There are many elements, all familiar, sitting separate from each other and all painting familiar pictures. Too often the show feels simply fine, rather than enrapturing.

Perhaps I’m very wrong about this. Maybe this is just the unfortunate consequence of 9-episode seasons, and the show is simply cutting through the intro to something special. Or maybe Aaron Ehasz is struggling with the same issues that plagued Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino during The Legend of Korra, issues they did not move past until well into Book 2. Right now, that’s my hope.

The Dragon Prince can be truly great. I hope it gets there.


Images courtesy of Netflix

Bo
Written By

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and feels slightly guilty over his love for Villanelle.

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