dragon prince

dragon princeThe Dragon Prince is quite simply wonderful. Netflix’s new epic fantasy is intended for kids, but like all great literature it is able to speak to everyone.

There are often facile lessons, or missing nuances, in young adult fantasy (okay, in adult fantasy, too). But not so The Dragon Prince. The balance of light and dark rings true. There are unlikely alliances, unbreakable oaths, and awakening magic. The action is exciting and the world-building immersive.

And while The Dragon Prince is an unabashed, sweeping saga, it is also warm and funny. There are elements of Heavy Metal, hints of ElfQuest, a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings, and even a bit of Archer in the character renderings. Snarky and self-aware, the dialogue slips in plenty of pop-culture: “I was trying to sweep the leg”, “Winter is coming…eventually”, and “Say ‘hello’ to my little friend” are all uttered at various points.

It’s been a long time since I so thoroughly enjoyed an animated series the way I enjoy this one.

The Background

dragon princeLong in the past, humans discovered dark magic and were driven to the edge of the continent by elves and dragons. The story begins a few years after King Harrow murders the ancient dragon king and destroys his egg, bringing the humans and the elves to the brink of war. Elvish assassins infiltrate the kingdom to kill Harrow and his heir, Prince Ezran. Rayla, a young elvish assassin, finds she cannot take an innocent life. Instead, she helps Ezran and his half-brother Callum escape the assassination attempt after Ezran discovers the dragon’s egg hidden in the castle dungeons. The three then embark on a dangerous, epic quest to return the dragon’s egg to its mother.  

The Details

Created and written by Aaron Ehasz (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Futurama) and Justin Richmond (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception), The Dragon Prince is richly imagined and beautifully presented, with gorgeous artwork, a soaring score, and a full magical world.

Like many fantasy sagas, The Dragon Prince is stuffed with creatures borrowed from the classic, but they have been tweaked to fit their new world. The huge worm is a mountain dweller. The giant spider is an illusion. The dragon-slayers are not the good guys.

The characters are fully developed, diverse and inclusive, with their own complicated relationships and internal lives. The emotions behind their actions feel honest. The moral lessons are clear but the story refrains from hitting viewers over the head with them. The characters are almost entirely normal people–or as normal as elves, mages, and royalty can be. Some are clearly the bad guys, but they have recognizable reasons for what they do. There are, so far, no real caricatures among them.

The Actors

dragon princeThe three main characters are strongly drawn without falling back on genre stereotypes. Jack De Sena plays Callum, the fourteen year old half-brother to the heir apparent, with an excellent blend of adult responsibility and adolescent insecurity. Paula Burrows portrays the elf-assassin Rayla with terrific conviction and a charming, thick Scottish accent. Sasha Rojen plays the child-prince Ezran as a thinking, feeling, learning person with convincing agency and autonomy.
The secondary characters are also well done. Luc Roderique is King Harrow of Katolis, stubborn, proud, and trying his best to protect his people. Jason Simpson plays Viren, the King’s treacherous advisor, who may or may not be a good man underneath it all. Viren’s children Claudia and Soren are portrayed convincingly as close siblings by Racquel Belmonte and Jesse Inocalla. And Jonathan Holmes gives the elvish assassin leader Runaan a fierce and enduring code of honor.

The Conclusion

It’s rare to find something so well-done, so dedicated to its vision, so vibrant and enjoyable.

The Dragon Prince is that something. I recommend it without reservation.

ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

maiden voyage

maiden voyageThe Maiden Voyage and Other Departures by Jessica McHugh is a collection of six loosely related stories that hinge on a promising steampunk concept. In McHugh’s take on the early nineteen-tens, the world is polluted by industrial pollen technology and humanity shares the stage with apisthropes–bee/human hybrids living in disguise among humans. There is intrigue. There are power struggles. There is still a lot missing.

McHugh’s style is vivacious and energetic, but there is no nuance to her storytelling. The hybrid idea is full of possibility. However, the driving conceit quickly loses its steam to superficial characters, thin plots, and a lack of historical context. The collection oscillates between four fairly-convincingly related tales and two weak vignettes that have to name-drop to create any connection. The big picture simply isn’t there.

***

This is not a particularly well-crafted book. Worldbuilding is cursory, with little detail to anchor us to the locations. The dialogue is frequently anachronistic, with profanity thrown in for shock value. And the characters are stereotypical (even the apisthropes), underdeveloped, and drawn with a heavy hand.

My two immediate issues with The Maiden Voyage are the slapdash writing and sloppy editing:

“Mama opened the door and hollered for the nursemaid, Helga, but she was outside with the butler overseeing the installation of a beeswax and jellyglass fountain the Goswick’s had rented for the evening, and it had only just given its first spurt when Edith’s Vagnerian voice tugged her inside.”

Another example:

“The gentle voice that cooed from behind him didn’t look like it belonged to the raven-haired woman standing in the doorway.”

I know mistakes happen. Typos and misspellings get missed. But this inattention to detail is found throughout the book, and is the kind of distraction that keeps me from caring about the characters or their fates.

***

Each story in the collection happens in the same alternate past, and is meant to connect to the others if only tangentially.

The Maiden Voyage

The title novelette fumbles an opportunity to provide exposition and context for what comes after. The protagonist is a newborn apisthrope, a drone born without any memory or history of his kind. This information is bestowed by a female shortly after he is born. Apparently, apisthropes have existed for eons. But instead of giving the reader access to any background information, McHugh glosses over it.

Large Blue, Little Darling

The second story expands on another variety of hybrid creature (butterfly/human) to no real end. The piece is more a vignette than a full story, and a sloppy throwaway of a vignette at that. The editing is atrocious, with dropped words, incomplete rewrites, and muddled points of view.

maiden voyageThere’s Nothing Between the Sky and Sea

While this moves the general storyline to America and introduces the Wright brothers (and sister Kate), the historical connection is once again tenuous and the story fails to build on what it has. The existence of a pantheon of bee-gods is mentioned in passing, as is a human who is able to channel other personalities like a medium. There is more included here than can be effectively addressed in one short story.

Pain Like Honey Wine

This introduces a tragic hero, London slums, and human-hybrid S&M to the mix without stirring many emotions. I felt as if this story could have been a broad parody, but the blend of sentimentality and undercover rebellion is too strong for that reading.

Forgotten in El Paso

This one is an inconsistently moody ghost story that neither adds nor subtracts from The Maiden Voyage’s  general concept. It takes place in the West, and expands oddly on the human/spider hybrid introduced in the first tale.

America or Bust

The final piece has a preternaturally gifted teenaged heroine, incomprehensible motivations for the villains, and one character who seems to exist only to reveal that another is gay. It also revives an antagonist from the first story, and teases more to come.

***

McHugh clearly has a good sense of humor, and, despite the editorial issues, an engaging style. Perhaps if the tales comprising The Maiden Voyage had been played more for laughs rather than for drama, the whole enterprise would have worked. As it is, The Maiden Voyage comes across to me as a fast and loose draft of a good idea rather than a fully-fleshed world.

disenchantment
disenchantment
Bean, Elfo, and Luci

Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s new series for Netflix, certainly has its own unique charms. It is no Futurama. It is certainly not The Simpsons. While there are, of course, similarities to Groening’s earlier work, this new show is something that aspires to be a heartfelt, ongoing saga while still capturing the goofy spirit of the other series.

So far, Disenchantment has had some difficulty in finding its direction. The first season is a rather uneven journey, but it’s definitely on the right track.

***

The series follows the adventures of Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie De La Rochambeaux Drunkowitz of Dreamland, known more economically as Bean. She is a boozy, rebellious teenager who is constantly at odds with her father, King Zøg, her stepmother, Queen Oona, and her half-brother, Prince Derek. Bean’s only friends are her nursemaid, Bunty, Elfo the renegade elf, and Luci, Bean’s very own personal demon. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, Queen Dagmar, who died when Bean was just a baby.

There are arranged marriages, diplomatic debacles, political machinations, crusades, curses, enchantments, and the occasional tavern brawl. There are witches, wizards, debauched fairies, transformed princes, giants, griffins, and three-eyed counselors. Castles, dungeons, and side-quests abound. There is also a whole lot of family drama.

disenchantment
Zog and Oona, Rulers of Dreamland

I think Bean’s relationship with her father is well-done. King Zøg has what may be a good heart inside his crusty royal shell. And for all her push-back, Bean loves her dad. I also find Queen Oona refreshing as the not-actually-mean stepmother, who manages to be both bizarre and boring in her stepdaughter’s eyes.

***

The characters are portrayed by Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Matt Berry, David Herman, Maurice LaMarche, Lucy Montgomery and Billy West, with great enthusiasm and thoroughly random accents.

Unfortunately, the main characters’ personality traits are also somewhat random from one episode to the next, which makes it harder to become fully invested in them. Bean’s scattershot behavior is at least excusable for a confused teenager, but the writers don’t seem to have a good handle on Elfo and Luci. Both of these characters are frequently out of character, with Elfo in particular swinging wildly from innocent to cynical and a number of points in between.

On the other hand, the minor and incidental characters are wonderful, my favorites being the King’s two pages (who I suspect are Akbar and Jeff) and a knight’s overprotective mother.

***

Disenchantment is not quite a sitcom like Groening’s other shows. It is a sharp comedy with a lot more going on inside the jokes. It mocks the conventions of the whole fantasy adventure genre while embracing the threats and dangers inherent in it. Disenchantment is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and other times quite sentimental. The show has already taken a few serious turns. There have been several on-screen character deaths (some more permanent than others), played for comedy and for genuine tragedy.

The initial impression I get of the series was that it is still feeling its way. The thread connecting all the scattered plot points was too obvious to ignore, but still hard to follow. Then the final few episodes managed to not only tie most of the story together, but to take it into unexpected and promising territory. That sudden turn is one of the strongest reasons I can give to watch.

With all its inconsistencies and slightly blurred focus, I like Disenchantment. A lot. There is an unexpected and welcome warmth to it, and what I hope is the promise of something more substantial to come.