Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 2

I liked the first season of The Dragon Prince. I had my qualms, mostly with the animation, but I liked the story and the characters, I was intrigued by the lore and setting, and I was excited to see more. The second season delivers. In truth, it’s an improvement on the first in just about every way.

One of the most impressive feats of the second season is that it makes the first season feel worthwhile and fundamental. The first ended with the dragon prince hatching from its egg, the core party of adventurers still far from their objective and with danger in close pursuit. Yet while the adventure may have progressed only a little, the characters have grown a lot. This is a story about the characters and their relationships and growth in particular. Sure, the core party of Callum, Ezran, and Rayla is central to this, but every character, whether hero or villain, is allowed a character journey and clear (though sometimes complex) motivations. Even the villains are operating from perspectives that you can understand, though you will hopefully disagree with them. The central antagonist, the king’s former adviser, Viren, twisted by years of dark magic and trapped into ever-more-desperate decisions in an effort to retain power, is still ultimately acting out of a misguided effort to protect his kingdom (though, grotesquely, not his former king and best friend’s children).

What I’m trying to say is that, even though the adventure plot had not advanced very far by the beginning of season two, the first season still felt like necessary viewing. It was a true first chapter, not just a prologue, and the inciting events and early steps on that adventure helped to define the characters and direct their motivations and passions. Ezran and Callum end up greatly changed by the experiences of season two, but they were already on that path thanks to the first season. And their close former friends, now enemies, and children of Viren, Claudia and Soren, are on especially interesting paths. Everyone is freed from the chains of perceived destiny, and now the young cast of key players, protagonist and antagonist, is left to make their own decisions about their fates. (By the way, when I told my wife what I believed Callum’s fate would be, she pointed out that his master-them-all potential path would be rather like that of the Avatar in The Last Airbender. Fair enough!)

The series also grew in depth, providing quite a bit of backstory at a well-timed moment that helped cement the state of the world, how it got there, and how even such a seemingly good and just king could be led down a path of darkness and violence.

The lore dripped out this season provides a gradual accumulation upon the stratum of the first season. The story continues to grow in tandem with and in benefit from that lore. It’s getting more complicated, but I’m rather enjoying the magic system of the world in particular, and I’m very interested to learn more about the figure in Viren’s mirror, who just so happens to seem a master of many of the schools of arcane art.

The show outdid itself in diversity. While it still seems to be a predominantly white world, there are still a variety of people of color populating all roles in the world, and the show has close to an equal balance of male and female characters, especially in speaking roles. Also, of the five human kingdoms, one is run by an incredibly clever young girl who is the orphaned daughter of two heroic queens. The homosexual relationship is presented explicitly, without comment, just as part of the story. Families separated by death or divorce are also central to the story. Beyond the deaf, and still badass, General Amaya, there are other characters living full lives with disabilities (there’s even a blind sea captain, and while he’s sort of a joke character in many ways, his capability as a sailor is never questioned, and his ability to man the ship blind is not even a subject of discussion–it’s just accepted). None of this is vital to the narrative, but none of it hurts anything either. The Dragon Prince truly shows how easy it can be to increase diverse representations of humanity. It is a great counter-example against anyone who claims that the inclusion of diverse characters is “forced.” This fantasy world is diverse, that’s just the way it is, it’s not a story about that, let’s move on. That’s great, and I’m sure it’s meaningful to many viewers to see themselves represented in some way on screen.

Finally, the animation seems greatly improved. The show still looks beautiful from moment to moment, but now the movements between actually look smooth. There were a couple times where a jerk of a hand or a walk seemed robotic, but for the most part things looked great in high action moments and in quiet character scenes.

Season two ends on a cliffhanger and with many threads left dangling. I’m excited to see season three!

The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 1

The Dragon Prince is good, but…

The new series by Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond is a fun family fantasy adventure. Its core cast is young, children and teenagers, and they navigate a world of weary adults who have often left principle behind, making hard sacrifices. The youngsters band together from diverse backgrounds to attempt a quest that will hopefully restore peace and harmony to a war-torn world. If that basic premise reminds you of Avatar: The Last Airbender, well, Ehasz was head writer and a co-producer on that show.

Another obvious Avatar crossover is Jack De Sena, voice actor for Sokka in Avatar as well as Callum, the “step-prince” and aspiring mage who is one of the three protagonists in The Dragon Prince. Callum is joined by his younger brother, Ezran (voiced by Sasha Rojen), the heir to the throne of their kingdom; Ezran’s pet “glow toad” named Bait; and Rayla (Paula Burrows), a Moonshadow Elf would-be assassin who decides to help the brothers when she learns that the egg of the deceased Dragon King was not destroyed.

Okay, that description sounds overly complicated. There’s a lot of lore, and a fair amount of plot, that’s dropped in the first few episodes–especially in the opening exposition of the very first episode. But it’s easy to pick up, and after the initially heavy dumps of information, we’re more gradually dropped little glimmers of the larger world. More attention is focused on developing and deepening the characters, with side adventures often bringing out more of the characters’ backgrounds and deeply held fears and beliefs with (refreshingly) emotionally honest dialogue that is sure to remind the viewer of Avatar. I’m not going to further info-dump here, though; if you choose to watch, you’ll get more than enough of that.

I’ve seen many comparisons to Game of Thrones, and while those comparisons are certainly relevant, I felt that the most salient reference point for The Dragon Prince is Dungeons & Dragons. The way they talk about spells, the formation of a party, the main quest interrupted by a slew of side quests, the medieval-light fantasy setting–even the emphasis on elves, dragons, and magical artifacts–seem drawn from D&D. And the setting is rather diverse, with a balance of male and female characters, a mixture of people of various skin tones within the same human kingdom and without comment, and an incredibly badass deaf warrior woman who is quite proficient in ASL (General Amaya, commander of the border guard and aunt of Callum and Ezran). D&D has similarly made a push to demonstrate and encourage greater inclusive diversity starting with the 5th Edition (maybe not always successfully).

So all of the above is good. If I were to talk about the show one-on-one with another new fan or a potential viewer, I’d focus on the great cast of characters, the witty dialogue, the pacing, the setting, the lore…But I’d also have to discuss the animation. I’m actually a fan of the character models and art, and the show often uses beautifully vibrant color, but the animation just seemed awful to me. Characters move in janky fits and starts. Slower, character-focused scenes can seem blocky and stilted. The action pieces look…better, fluid and dynamic, but there’s still a sort of retro-anime vibe. I don’t know if I just adapted or if the animation genuinely got better over the nine episodes of the first season, but by the end I was substantially less bothered. Nonetheless, for at least the first third, the animation style is very jarring and distracting.

I’m not an animation snob, and it’s weird for me to emphasize animation as such a critical weakness, but it was truly that disorienting. I hope that any future seasons will have a more streamlined look.

And I definitely hope there are future seasons! In almost every other way, I loved the show (other, minor points of criticism: watching concurrently with Adventure Time, it’s hard not to observe the bloat in even relatively short half-hour episodes, and the heavy-to-the-point-of-parody Scottish accents for the Moonshadow elves were sometimes grating). This series certainly deserves more. It ends mid-arc, and it would be disappointing not to see the plot more fully developed, or to never see more of the elaborate fantasy world planted here.

With reservation about the animation quality, I nonetheless would recommend this to any and all fantasy fans in general or Avatar and D&D fans in particular.

Some of the Shows

This is a shorter post, and the last of all the things. I don’t have any movies to discuss, and my recent TV history has been relatively light.

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I’ve been following along with the Clone Wars rewatch on StarWars.com in intermittent bursts. Behind again, on pace again, behind again. It is a fun way to rewatch, and the pace isn’t too slow, but as I inevitably get behind, it’s also not impossible to catch up on easily enough when I have the time.

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My wife and I have also been making a dedicated effort to watch Adventure Time from start to finish. I got into Adventure Time fairly late–during a prolonged period of hospitalizations, I would pass the time with daytime television and quickly discovered Adventure Time and Steven Universe to be quirky, clever, and heartfelt. We watched the first season or two on Netflix a couple years back, but that’s all Netflix had. We got Hulu in the past year, and we’ve only recently decided to focus on watching these shows from start to finish. We started with Adventure Time (now mid-season 4), and we plan to go to Steven Universe once we finish. Just a random, related recommendation: Bee and PuppyCat. Another cute, quirky animated show full of heart and weird sci-fantasy. It was fun to see screenings of this series at Gen Con in the past, and that leads me to believe that it must have a fairly sizable following, but I don’t hear this show pop up in conversations often enough. It deserves more attention.

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Lastly, I’ve started The Dragon Prince, the new Netflix animated series helmed by Aaron Ehasz (co-executive producer, head writer, and director on Avatar: The Last Airbender). This is a show that I’ll want to write a full review for after finishing the nine episodes of season one. But I can already say that the dialogue, voice acting, plot, and humor are great, and I like the artwork (especially colors and character models), but the animation is very bothersome. Everything seems to be running at a reduced frame rate, and it’s irksome to watch characters twitching across each scene, always moving too fast but animating too slow. Hopefully that will improve some–if not by the end of this season, then with later seasons.

And with that, I’ve completed my report on all the things, for now.