If you can't wait for the final season of Game of Thrones, The Dragon Prince might satiate your hankering for a fantasy epic show. Bonus: You can watch it with your kids.
The animated series on Netflix magically, and effectively, checks off a lot of entertainment boxes. The tone wildly swings from silly to sad and poignant, yet somehow manages to juggle all the conflicting emotions in a charming, binge-worthy package.
While it's a cartoon, The Dragon Prince, like the now-concluded Voltron: Legendary Defender, straddles the line between adult and children's entertainment. That's no coincidence, as the showrunners of both also worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a Nickelodeon cartoon that's built up a massive cult following over the years.
"Hopefully, it's something you can watch more than once at different ages, and see something different," co-creator Aaron Ehasz said in an interview at New York Comic-Con in October.
The Dragon Prince centers around three central characters: teenage prince Callum; his younger stepbrother, Ezran, the true heir to the throne; and Rayla, an elfin assassin on a quest to kill their father.
Complications and a key revelation tied to the show's name band the unlikely trio together on a Lord of the Rings-style journey.
To reveal more would be spoiling the fun, but here're some reasons you should check out The Dragon Prince.
Likeable, complex characters
Seeing an assassin bond with her target's two sons isn't a dynamic you'd normally encounter in a cartoon, but it's effective thanks to their natural chemistry. It helps that all the characters are really likeable.
Callum starts off as the wisecracking lead, and Rayla the brooding one, but the showrunners wisely choose to spend plenty of time exploring the characters' depth. Conversely, Callum goes through an intense emotional journey as the show goes on, while Rayla gets to be silly once in a while. Ezran is anything but the typical annoying 10-year-old, exuding a calmness and charm that make him easy to root for.
"We try to find a balance between archetypes and tropes but also be original and authentic to the character," Ehsaz said.
Flipping the script
Fantasy stories have almost universally had a European bent, so it's refreshing to see a splash of diversity here. Where many fantasy and children's stories position the stepmother as the antagonist, here the stepparent is a positive force: King Harrow is a wise, noble stepfather to Callum. Subverting fantasy cliches was one of the creative team's goals.
"There's an opportunity to tell a story in a genre that's been done a lot of ways, with characters that are more complex, that reflect the modern world, reflect a more diverse world," Ehasz said.
One of the most engaging characters is Amaya, Callum and Ezran's aunt on their departed mother's side. She's deaf, and the show's creators spare no expense animating her sign language. Subtitles don't appear when she communicates, but you figure things out through context. She's a general, and you quickly learn through bold action that she's the most badass character, a fantastic example of the mantra "show, don't tell."
Epic world building
The Dragon Prince's first season, which started last September, is only nine half-hour episodes. But it lays out an expansive world steeped in hints of history. There's the unique way magic works for humans versus other creatures like elves. Years before the show's story starts, humans used dark magic to kill the Dragon King, resulting in a detente between humans and elves, with each side occupying half the land.
The second season, meanwhile, builds on that world, wisely using flashbacks to tell the tragic backstory of the previous generation of key players. Past mistakes ripple through to affect Callum and Ezran.
There's only one full-blown antagonist on the show, Viren, once the faithful adviser to King Harrow. But the dark mage has a somewhat understandable justification for his actions, even while they sink deeper into darkness as the show goes on.
More entertaining are his two children, the dark, magic-wielding Claudia and her boisterous brother and crown guard, Soren. Both are tasked with retrieving the princes, and they walk the line between threat and comedy relief. Claudia, who often has to sacrifice creatures to power her dark magic, is particularly effective as someone who genuinely cares for the main characters, adding a satisfying level of emotional complexity.
Fantasy, for beginners
Though my 2-year-old is a bit too young for The Dragon Prince, I can imagine him taking to this show in a few years. I didn't get into J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings until I was in junior high school, but this show gives kids a relatively safe place to get their feet wet in fantasy.
That's not to say there isn't death and some mature themes. But the show handles its darker tones with an impressive deftness.
There's a grumpy toad called Bait who changes colors and glows. And he's just the start.
Trust me, your kids will love the creatures in this show.
"We want to tell a great epic story with epic characters that we hope the audience finds funny and compelling," Ehsaz said.
You can catch The Dragon Prince on Netflix now.