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Callum and Rayla from The Dragon Prince Netflix

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The creators of The Dragon Prince preview their highly anticipated Netflix series

This animated show is complex, layered, and already hyped by convention fans

Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The Dragon Prince’s panel at FanExpo 2018 was held in the smaller South Hall at the Toronto Convention Centre, near where most of the RPG panels are held. But over an hour before the panel was due to start, crew members struggled to accommodate the wave of eager attendees that showed up.

Despite the fact that the show isn’t set to debut until Sept. 14, The Dragon Prince already has an energized fandom, though at the convention, few of the queued attendees were congregated around ships or hashtags yet. Some aren’t even quite sure why they’re here or where they first heard about the Netflix series. (An article? A tweet?)

The answer has everything to do with the cast and crew. Co-creators Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond, part of the new company Wonderstorm, have worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Uncharted, respectively; it’s an impressive resume of creating adventures. Executive producer and director Giancarlo Volpe has worked on Airbender, Star Wars, and League of Legends and Justice League animated content.

At FanExpo Toronto, Richmond thanked the crowd for showing up in such numbers for a show that “you don’t even know if you like yet!”

The crowd roared, partly out of a relief that they’d soon have genuine opinions. The Dragon Prince crew screened the first episode of The Dragon Prince at FanExpo, and it became instantly clear that the hyped series was something special.

The Dragon Prince is set in a fantasy world that was changed forever 1,000 years ago, when a human mage broke beyond the six traditional forms of magic to unleash a new kind of darkness. In response, elves and dragons mobilized to push humans into the western kingdoms. The Dragon King held the borders of the east kingdom, the humans responded by destroying his egg containing the Dragon Prince, and now everyone in the world is waiting for the next war to kick off.

The scope is enormous; The Dragon Prince might be primed for Netflix, but there are plans to extend it into a universe, with a video game far enough along to have a playable demo. Still, the premiere quickly narrows in on the people populating the world: kids sketching marshmallow knights and stealing jelly tarts; elven assassins who want to fit in but can’t get the assassin part of their job done; and princes who can’t figure out sword practice. “The show was meant to be accessible for a wide range of people,” Richmond told Polygon after the panel. “The FanExpo reception, in that sense, was a dream come true.”

The first episode sets the scene of the Dragon King, the human kingdoms, and mystical elves lore before introducing us to the core characters. Rayla, a Moonshadow Elf, is part of a band of assassins protecting the kingdoms of Xadia. She’s not ready to kill; she feels too much empathy for the humans. She’s at odds with her commander, Runaan, as she struggles to balance mercy and the weight of her responsibilities.

The human kingdoms are much more fleshed out in the first episode, where we meet King Harrow and his family. The human kingdoms are well-aware of the elven threat, and even innocent-seeming characters like the absent-minded mage Claudia are tapping into Dark Magic. The two Princes, Ezran and Callum, are trying to balance their child-like wants to draw and play and steal jelly tarts with the very real threat that war is coming, and they may be sent away.

It’s a compelling set of circumstances, and as the trailer shows, things get more complicated when they discover that the Dragon Prince’s egg is still unscathed and war may yet be averted. Rayla, Ezran, and Callum are mortal enemies, but they have a shared goal of peace — and they’re being hunted down by their respective allies.

Add in lots and lots of world building, a comic relief lizard, fun and authentic banter, strong characters, and a very blatant nod to the inevitable Game of Thrones comparisons, and the end result works quite well.

“The stakes are real, and the show is grounded in that,” Volpe explained. “But then you follow it through the point of view of kids who are jovial and comedic. There’s doom and gloom in the background, adults having serious conversation, and the kids — whether they want to or not — become part of that greater conflict.”

The Dragon Prince - three characters looking up at a dragon flying over them Image: Netflix

The idea is to create a dynamic world that has the potential for war, high stakes, and dark moments... but isn’t, as Richmond puts it, “a grim New York in the ’70s.” As to why the team decided to go with fantasy as a genre, Richmond’s initial response is “because it’s awesome!” Ultimately, fantasy opened the most boxes for the team; while they dabbled with science fiction and a few other concepts they couldn’t resist a Lord of the Rings-style world.

“We wanted to have fantasy represented with something they could understand,” Richmond explains. “We wanted to be more diverse than classic European fantasy. It’d be a cop-out to say, it’s all elves. Elves are The Other.”

The end result is that The Dragon Prince has a diverse cast of humans, including the main duo of brothers. Callum is a “step-prince,” part of a blended family, which has some social consequences for him.

“We wanted to draw and write what our lives are like,” Volpe agrees. “We all have friends from all over the world, and you just want to tell stories about that.”

“We want kids to be able to look up and say, I respond to that,” Richmond added.

The Dragon Prince - Claudia Netflix

The first trailer for the show drew criticism for slower animation that seemed stutter-y, and while watching the full first episode there was still smaller scenes and gestures — a nod, a series of microexpressions at a revelation — where-motion style seems awkward. But when characters are sending off falcons, storming through doors, chasing each other down, and going through action sequences, the style pops.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was also praised for its dynamic action and fluid movement. The Dragon Prince’s characters, at least in the first episode, aren’t as trained and have less mastery over their craft, but the CGI models and hand-painted environments allow for scenes that are as dynamic as Avatar. Throw in some special effects for creatures like the Dragon King or shadow wolves, and everything flows smoothly and draws the eye nicely. Just like The Last Airbender, we can hopefully see these characters evolve in their craft and reach the same heights of spectacle in their abilities.

This is partially because The Dragon Prince’s 2D, hand-painted environments do heavy lifting. An exchange that might be otherwise forgettable takes place in a carefully crafted and gorgeous locale; it gives the sense of navigating through dioramas or watching a stage play. There’s a serious sense of depth and layers in every scene that make the stop motion style work extremely well; the action sings, and even slow scenes of political maneuvering are a joy to watch.

The animation is heavily inspired by anime, and the frames changing on a two or three count instead of the Disney one count make each scene punchier, focusing the viewer’s attention to certain moments like the flash of blades or a character vaulting back.

The Dragon Prince’s pilot episode managed to offer, in a short run time, three storylines I was invested in and wanted to follow. Possibly the greatest sign that the show has hit its mark was the fan reaction. In the middle of my interview with Volpe and Richmond, a gaggle of fans approached shyly. They wanted their posters signed, and once they had the creators’ attention, they couldn’t stop talking about the show and their thoughts. It’s a series that hasn’t even started yet, but there’s already a wide variety of fans who are hungry for the glimpses the show has offered.

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