Fans seeking a spiritual successor to the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender won't find it in The Dragon Prince. Oh, sure, Netflix's new animated series is co-created by Avatar head writer Aaron Ehasz and features the talents of Sokka voice actor Jack DeSena, but the similarities effectively end there. Whereas Avatar sought to subvert fantasy tropes with a setting influenced by Asian and Inuit cultures, The Dragon Prince leans hard into genre tradition with a quasi-medieval European world populated by warring humans, elves and dragons.
But if viewers can move past a premise that amounts to little more than Tolkien fan fiction, there's a lot to enjoy in the characters of this new fantasy adventure.
The state of the world is explained in the series premiere's opening, introducing Xadia, a land fit for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, where magic is drawn from six sources -- the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Sky, the Earth and the Ocean -- at least until a thousand years ago, when human mages ruined everything by creating a sixth magic, Dark Magic. As a result, the humans are driven to the western part of the continent and the mighty dragon king is left to guard the entrance to Xadia. But tensions escalate when humans kill the dragon king and seemingly destroy his heir, still an egg.
It's against that backdrop that The Dragon Prince opens, with a group of formidable moonshadow elves sent to assassinate the human King Harrow and his heir, Prince Ezran, in retribution. However, the primary obstacle to carrying out their mission comes not from King Harrow's guards, or even his morally suspect High Mage, but from his young children.
The bookish Callum (DeSena) and the mischievous Ezran (Saha Rojen) are an endearing pair whose brotherly bond is instantly relatable. Repeatedly reminded by the frat bro-like knight Soren (Jesse Inocalla) that he's merely a "step-prince," the teenage Callum is unsure of his place in the family and the kingdom, but is nevertheless tasked with ensuring his younger brother is out of harm's way when the virtually unstoppable assassins arrive for the king.
But the problem is, one of those assassins, young Rayla (Paula Burrows), isn't exactly sure of herself either, or her mission. Seeking to redeem herself after inadvertently giving away the elves' approach, she rushes headlong into the castle, only to cross paths with the two young princes, who reveal to Rayla that they've all been misled. Determined to prevent all-out war between their kingdoms, the three set out with perhaps the only hope to save their world.
With the exception of the opening exposition, the three episodes of The Dragon Prince provided for review do little in the way of world-building, but they do go a long way in introducing characters viewers will want to get to know better. Harrow (Luc Roderique), for instance, is a good king and father who has, nevertheless, had to make difficult (and immoral) choices for which he's willing to pay. High Mage Verin (Jason Simpson) teeters on mustache-twirling villain territory, only to reveal depth in his devotion to his monarch and in his interactions with his children, Soren and the Dark Mage prodigy Claudia (Racquel Belmonte). Obviously, though, the focus is on Callum, Rayla and Ezran (and maybe Ezran's glow toad Bait), and that should suit viewers just fine.
The visual style, a combination of 3D computer animation and cel shading with a reduced frame rate, may be a different matter, however. That will take some getting used to.
In the end, The Dragon Prince is unlikely to fill that Avatar: The Last Airbender-shaped hole in the hearts of fans, but it may help soothe the pain, just a little.
Featuring the voices of Jack DeSena, Sasha Rojen, Paula Burrows, Jesse Inocalla, Racquel Belmonte, Luc Roderique and Jason Simpson, The Dragon Prince Season 1 arrives Friday on Netflix.