As has been dutifully pointed out on an almost annual basis since its conclusion in 2008, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated series of all time. Its character development and world building are still virtually unparalleled; its head writer, Aaron Ehasz, was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show, which ended with a finale that drew 5.6 million viewers. Throughout, it handled heavy subject matter with humor, authenticity, and nuance that few others have come close to since. And that’s not for lack of good cartoons, many of which can trace their creative lineage back to Avatar—its groundbreaking sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra; Star Wars: The Clone Wars; and Voltron: Legendary Defender, to name a few. Now, just over a decade on, Ehasz himself is at the helm of a new series: The Dragon Prince, which premieres Friday on Netflix.
From the first glimpse of gorgeous, hand-painted backdrops and bizarre hybrid creatures, The Dragon Prince’s heritage is apparent. Perhaps because it’s not beholden to an existing canon—as both Voltron and The Clone Wars were—the distinctive elements that made Avatar great shine through more clearly here than on any other show since. And the writers aren’t shy about planting in-jokes for fans of their earlier work: When we first meet one main character, she’s reading Love Amongst the Dragons, a popular play in the Avatar universe.
Easter eggs notwithstanding, The Dragon Prince takes place in a new universe with a different set of conflicts. The events of the first three episodes unfold over the course of a single day, as the people of Katolis prepare for an elven attack they know will come when the moon is at its highest. Their enemies have plenty of motive: the previous winter, King Harrow (voiced by Luc Roderique) spearheaded an offensive that ended in the killing of the Dragon King and his as-yet-unhatched son, the eponymous Dragon Prince. It was the culmination of a centuries-old rift that began when humans took up dark magic, a practice that consumes the essence of magical creatures. Some in Harrow’s court hoped the destruction of the egg would end the war, but with assassins at the gates, it’s clear it only served to escalate it.
All of this is established within about 10 minutes, but if The Dragon Prince leans heavily on exposition at the outset, this front-loading is justified when we discover that the mythos we’ve been spoon-fed isn’t wholly true. Even early on, the series grapples with historiography and cycles of violence, highlighting the way the kids at its center have been raised to blindly idolize their respective kingdoms—and more immediately, the adults around them. When 15-year-old would-be elven assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows) needs to put on a brave (and suitably intimidating) face, she resorts to parroting her mentor’s favorite phrase: “Justice will not be denied.” Yet her inability to follow through is what makes the rest of the story possible. She and the human princes Callum (Jack de Sena) and Ezran (Sasha Rojen), whom she was sent to kill, discover that the Dragon King’s egg wasn’t destroyed after all, setting the unlikely trio on a quest to return it to its rightful place and restore peace between the kingdoms.
Rayla’s fellow protagonists are thinly drawn by comparison, but the first three episodes lay the groundwork for a complex and engrossing world. Despite the latitude afforded by Netflix, it’s not needlessly dark or cynical. The Dragon Prince believes in the power of its teenage protagonists and the intelligence of its (likely) teenage audience. And the series wears its genre lightly, with playful juxtapositions of the obligatory high-fantasy jargon and distinctly 2018 turns of phrase; Crownguard prodigy Soren (Jesse Inocalla) informs Callum after their sparring match, “Even if you were wearing the rarest legendary armor forged by Sunfire elves, [you’d be] super dead.”
The Dragon Prince’s take on the genre is also a notably inclusive one. Co-creator Justin Richmond has said that he wanted to avoid the familiar fantasy trope of elves as “The Other,” where fictional species become a stand-in for real-world minorities at the expense of actual characters of color. King Harrow and his son Ezran, who are both black, mark a clear break with that tradition; Harrow’s own regrets about his conduct as a ruler, particularly his fraught relationship with adviser Viren (Jason Simpson), are perhaps the most compelling aspects of the show so far. While Viren seems unconcerned with the costs and consequences of dark magic, he’s driven to those extremes by a desire to protect the king he loves—and by a cutthroat utilitarian worldview that makes a queasy kind of sense. Those shades of gray aren’t reserved for the adults, either; the characters who end up hunting the protagonists are initially introduced as their longtime friends.
The show isn’t perfect: The slightly shaky animation and some markedly shakier accents (the elves range from terrible-fake-Scottish to nebulously English, for reasons unknown) take some getting used to. But for anyone who relishes in a good fantasy story or has longed for a new cartoon of Avatar’s caliber, The Dragon Prince seems set to deliver. It offers escapism without being blinkered, in a world that’s like ours in the ways that matter—and different from it in ways that are immensely satisfying.