You know, there aren’t many shows I would wait three years for. I struggled with HBO’s two-year breaks on big shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld a few years ago, and I tend to think it’s not a good strategy. Most people aren’t mega-fans and will forget to tune in if too much time passes. Netflix and Wonderstorm’s epic fantasy series The Dragon Prince likely exacerbated this issue by releasing seasons 1, 2, and 3 in relatively quick succession; the previous seasons dropped in September 2018, February 2019, and November 2019, respectively. Regardless, The Dragon Prince is one series I gladly and patiently waited for throughout the COVID pandemic. Animation is notoriously time-consuming and expensive, and often better products result from long productions. Now the question remains: was it worth it? Is Book 4: Earth a welcome return to Kotalis and Xadia, or was it all for naught? Let’s have a look!
Book 4: Earth finds Viren waking up two years after his death at the end of Book 3: Sun. Claudia’s black magic abilities have expanded to reviving her father, but only for 30 days. This ticking time clock sends them and Claudia’s new boyfriend, Terry, on a quest to free Aaravos. Meanwhile, Callum isn’t thrilled about his birthday, as it’s the anniversary of Rayla leaving to pursue Viren. Rayla returns as the Dragon Queen and Prince Zim visit Kotalis. However, they’re quickly called away when a message warns them about the plot to free Aaravos. Callum, Ezran, and the gang reunite to accompany the dragons back to Xadia. Queen Janai of the Sun Elves pledges to marry General Amaya of Kotalis despite her brother’s warnings of how the people will feel. Matters worsen in the Sun Elf camp as the human and elf denizens clash. Ezran, Callum, and the others make a pilgrimage to Umber Tor, an underground dragon den, to see the great dragon Rex Igneous. They plead with him for the location of Aaravos’ prison, but Claudia arrives and intercepts the map. Tensions between the Royal Sun Elf siblings bubble into a duel. The heroes are on the run as team Viren pushes ever onward.
A lot happens this season, but that’s the gist, short of summarizing each individual episode. The animation on environments and buildings has come along nicely over the show’s run. Three years is a long time in terms of the advancement of animation, and you can see it in the show’s non-organic elements. The movement of characters and animals could still be a little bit less stilted, especially when they’re just walking or gesturing. Character animation is at its best in The Dragon Prince during battles and combat. For example, Amaya’s movements are fluid and cohesive when she gets “ambushed” by Janai’s proposal party. Claudia’s deadly scuffle with Ibis in Zim’s home is similarly satisfying and clean. The shading and textures on the characters could be improved, but overall, it gets the job done. The Dragon Prince’s original music by Frederik Wiedmann is absolutely beautiful and one of the show’s technical highlights. The voice cast is excellent all around, particularly Jason Simpson as Viren and Erik Dellums’ sparse dialogue as Aaravos. He gets even fewer lines in Earth than in previous books despite being at the forefront of the story now. This serves to add to his mystique and the threat he poses. Dellums also voiced Koh the Face Stealer in Avatar: The Last Airbender, another otherworldly being with incomprehensible goals. The character and performance of Aaravos are different enough not to copy Koh, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
I know trailers tend to use a movie or show’s best bits to entice viewers, but I feel it was a mistake in the case of Book 4: Earth. For example, giving us Aaravos’ backstory and Rayla’s return in the promos spoiled some significant moments. I’m not holding this against the show because an outside source likely compiled the clips, not Wonderstorm themselves. Arguments could be made that reviving Viren is a mistake, but either way, I would have liked his return to be a shock as well. Many big, emotional reveals were stolen months before the season dropped. As a viewer since day 1, I find that beyond frustrating. On a side note, the season isn’t called “Mystery of Aaravos,” as I assumed from the marketing; it’s Earth, more in line with the previous subtitles. Mystery of Aaravos does appear in the title sequence, though, so I’m not sure if this is a new subtitle for the whole show? The Dragon Prince: Mystery of Aaravos, Book 4: Earth? Really rolls off the tongue.
In all seriousness, Ezran’s speech to the Dragon Royal Family and the people of Kotalis is very effective. Ezran grows ever wiser, and his powers of speech and empathy make him an excellent leader. This monologue acknowledges the genuine pain the two factions have caused one another without inciting further violence, which is impressive. However, some of the smaller bits of dialogue aren’t very good. Opeli goes out of her way to tell Callum they’ve been waiting for his brother, the King. He knows who his brother is, and so do we, so this came off as unnatural to me. This is season 4, so it’s not like we need expositional dialogue. Similarly, Gren translates Amaya’s sign language to Janai in the beginning. This makes little sense when we see Janai signing with Amaya later in the SAME EPISODE. I prefer subtitles for the sign language because it wouldn’t take me out of the story. The humor in Book 4 is also weak and much more noticeable than in prior installments. This wouldn’t be a big deal if there weren’t so many gags this season; if it’s not Soren’s crappy stand-up, it’s Terry’s farts. I can’t believe this show stooped to fart jokes, but here we are. There’s also a running joke about flossing (the dance, not dental hygiene) that feels several years behind the curve. This may be due to the COVID pandemic and production delays, but I doubt it would’ve been funny anyway.
Soren is a full good guy now, protecting Callum and Ezran along the way. He even fights his sister and is visibly distressed to discover his father lives. This is one of my favorite aspects of this season, actually. It’s giving me Zuko, Azula, and Ozai vibes from Avatar, but that’s fine by me. I wish there were fewer jabs at Soren’s intelligence; I like him, but sometimes the writers lean into the “big dumb strongman” trope with him, and it’s a shame. The dynamic between Viren and Claudia is fascinating in Book 4, and I want more in the coming seasons. At first, I sensed that she was like Lady Macbeth in this scenario, pushing Viren to commit vile acts. She makes him climb the Stormspire and pursue power rather than rest. This ends up not being the case, as later on, he takes charge and reclaims his staff. Going into Book 4, I thought reviving Viren was a mistake; he’s one of the show’s most complex, enjoyable characters. But I felt like his character arc was essentially over while Claudia’s had only begun, spurred on by his tragic (in her eyes) death. Meanwhile, her brother, neglected by their father for lack of magical aptitude, is horrified to see him alive. Great characterization is displayed there. I still maintain that killing Viren for real was the right move, but he’s much better here than I expected. He has some PTSD, which is understandable since he can remember dying. Oof. Maybe a power struggle between father and daughter is coming; Claudia is already more powerful than Viren and just as ruthless. I think Terry is going to be a love-him-or-hate-him character for most people, but I’m torn. He is funny, providing the season’s only good comic relief. But it feels out of place; dude, your girlfriend, and her dad are hardened criminals willing to kill to meet their goals. Why are you joking about farts and telling Claudia how wonderful and perfect she is? This girl is a murderous necromancer, not the fairy princess you think you’re in love with. But I did like the scene near the season’s end when he confronts her for tricking Rayla. There was no reason for her to do this other than cruelty; Rayla had already surrendered. Why dangle hope of reuniting with her parents in her face and essentially prank her? I don’t know why the show is so obsessed with Rayla’s parents, but it was satisfying to see somebody call Claudia out. Props to Soren and Terry for doling out the tough love.
I’m not as thrilled with our band of intrepid heroes. Callum makes it out alright, but he never talks to Rayla about his feelings and thoughts. He’s just mad at her until he suddenly isn’t, jumping into her open arms. I’m fine with this relationship arc if there’s an actual arc with progression. Why are they okay now? Does he fully forgive her, or is this going to be one of those “I just think it’s funny how…” cyclical relationship problems? I assume not the latter since this is a family show, but this should have been explored. Instead, the writers presented a problem, mentioned it a few times, then suddenly solved it. Speaking of Rayla, not much happens with her character this season, which is a shame. Claudia reluctantly gives her the coins containing the souls of her parents and Runan, the leader of her assassins group. I don’t care for the way The Dragon Prince dwells on Rayla’s past rather than pushing her character forward, but it is what it is. I don’t care about her parents, and I thought it was more interesting when we believed they were evil. It’s not like having bad parents makes you bad; you can still make your own choices. Ezran shines in big moments like his aforementioned plea for peace, but sometimes I wish he showed a little more decorum. He’s a King, but when addressing another King, Rex Igneous, he shouts, “Listen to me!” and around Zim, he acts like any other little boy. I’m not saying this is the worst character writing ever; I’ve seen worse-written shows this year. But The Dragon Prince has been better than this historically, so this is a bummer.
I liked the bits with Janai and Amaya a lot more. Janai’s brother Kareem opposes her familiarity with the humans, fearing it will erode their culture and give way to human superiority. I think this is handled subtly enough to where you could apply it to many situations. It’s not a clear “Kareem is Trump!” or “Kareem is North Korea!” or some other distracting nonsense. There is some subtext here with the lesbian relationship between Queen Janai and General Amaya. Specifically, Kareem advises his sister to live with Amaya as lovers but not legally marry. He says taking a human wife will cast doubt on her rule as Queen, but it’s a plain analogy for gay marriage being legal/accepted/etc. Again, I think this is handled realistically and not in a preachy way. I like Janai’s judgment for the burn victim; she was attacked for desecrating a Sun Elf mourning ritual. Rather than sentencing the woman to death, as her advisors and brother say, she listens to Amaya. The woman is an architect, so Janai orders her to aid in the construction of a temple for the mourning rituals. This is fitting, appropriate, and compassionate. Kareem thinks his sister is weak because she’s not an extremist like him. She doesn’t automatically feel threatened by humans, and violence isn’t her first resort. That being said, I was also delighted when Janai met her brother in combat, fulfilling the duel rather than forfeiting her crown. You love to see it.
Some final thoughts here: Rayla’s pet monkey exists only to have another cute creature on the show. This “character” has no substance, unlike Bait and Zim, and adds nothing to the story. I must mention that Soren says “Yip yip” to a dragon to make it fly, an obvious nod to Avatar. Book 4 is by far the most uneven in quality yet for The Dragon Prince. I’m disappointed; the show was never perfect, but I never thought Callum or Rayla were weak leads before. “Escape From Umber Tor” is also the show’s most disappointing season finale.
Book 4: Earth isn't bad but isn't a worthy successor to Books 1-3.