The fantastic has ruled our popular culture for so long that it’s easy to miss the relative scarcity, in film and television, actual capital-F Fantasy. Hollywood still seems skeeved by “epic fantasy,” an ever-expanding genre that flourishes beneath the twin suns of J.R.R. Tolkien, that scholar of myth and language, and Dungeons & Dragons’ Gary Gygax, the guy who quantified how many ax-whacks an orc can take. That’s despite the endless reign of Game of Thrones, the world-beating success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, the perennial popularity of D&Ds and video games inspired by it and bold innovations in novels by authors like N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Steven Erickson, Kameron Hurley and many more. And it’s a surprise, as epic fantasy demands from its fans, the one thing television executives want in the streaming age: engagement. All those maps to pore over, names to memorize and episodes to re-binge!
It makes sense, then, that Amazon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on upcoming adaptations of Tolkien and also Robert Jordan’s brick-thick, molasses-slow “Wheel of Time” books, an epic fantasy series so dithering in its plotting that its 12th volume is titled “The Gathering Storm.” (It’s only starting to gather after 11,000 pages?) In the meantime, Netflix has recently offered two modest stabs at this stabbing-est of genres, a pair of animated series, one of which bristles with promise. The Dragon Prince, a show crafted for all ages, offers compelling characters, a freshness of spirit, a healthy distaste for violence and a fantasy world interesting enough to reward mastering its proper nouns.
Fleet, exciting and surprisingly funny, The Dragon Prince mashes up many of the most familiar elements of fantasy against a cast of heroes with distinctly modern sensibilities — just as role-playing games do. Here, as a couple of royal kids and an elf assassin embark on the usual impossible quest, “primal stones” meet peanut butter. The story, concocted with care by Aaron Ehasz (the head writer of the storied Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Justin Richmond, opens with a traditional fantasy info-dump, laying out the history of its conflicts, and then immediately humanizes all the solemn talk of dark magic and dragon eggs. A squad of
Unlike many movie and TV fantasies, including most of the Star Wars films and cartoons, The Dragon Prince finds heroism in not killing. It’s in friendship, teamwork, taking a chance on looking past old grudges. Its young heroes strike a surprising alliance and set out not to destroy evil but to prove to the world’s warring faction that there’s reason to think better of each other. Doing so, the creators weave a mythology more rich than you might expect from the 24-minute running time of most episodes, springing on us betrayals, dynastic dramas, rousing sequences of exploration and adventure and jokes both good (“Unstoppable is just another kind of stoppable,” insists one cocksure young man upon being warned of a foe’s mightiness) and wearying (the gassy horse could have been cut). Best of all, The Dragon Prince fully honors a key element of the best fantasy fiction: a sense that its world is more vast and fascinating than what you’ve seen of it so far. It invites you in and then rewards you for entering.
That’s not at all the case with Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, the long-awaited follow-up to Futurama from the creator of The Simpsons. Here the world withers rather than
Disenchantment’s chief concession to fantasy (and to Netflix’s binge culture) is the minor serialization of its story. The first and last few episodes of the season offer cliffhangers and consequences as its principals — hard-drinking Princess Bean (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), her personal demon Luci (Eric Andre) and melted Bart Simpson-looking elf Elfo (Nat Faxon) — face standard-issue fantasyland problems like forced betrothals, sorcerous invasions and questions of lineage. At first, this proved a relief. When the jokes failed to hit in the pilot, at least the plight of Jacobson’s appealing crank of a princess was engaging. That episode ends excitingly, with Bean, Luci
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Unless you stop your Netflix’s autoplay, the second starts before the first’s credits have ended, and it immediately, painfully undercuts everything we’ve seen before. The characters are still falling, but rather than panic or improvise a surprise solution, they bicker through one of the series’ many protracted comedy bits, an exchange so wheezily inconsequential it echoes back not just to Jack Benny but to vaudeville. Almost 30 years after Homer Simpson’s brutal, bloody, utterly hilarious spill down Springfield Gorge, Groening’s shows seem content with mere cartoonishness.
Again and again, Disenchantment seems uncertain what we should care about. Those serialized episodes tend to be the strongest, as their stories at least offer clear stakes. In between, the series fritters: When the king goes out of town, Bean throws a party, accidentally inviting Vikings to seize the kingdom and murder many of her people. The event has little consequence, save an expertly performed see-it-coming gag about the king (voiced by Futurama’s John DiMaggio) getting avalanched with severed limbs Bean has hidden away in her last-minute cleanup. That, too, is an update of the oldest comedy routines, but it’s staged and acted with brio; more often, Disenchantment’s gags tend toward the rote or desperate, with an unfortunately high percentage of them riffs on the old Simpsons/Family Guy Hail Mary of something not especially funny going on so long that it maybe wins you over.
Another episode opens with Bean and her drunken crew getting mistaken for corpses and tossed into the kingdom’s plague pit. Once they fish themselves out from the heaps of dead, we’re given a story about the consequences of Elfo lying that he has a girlfriend who lives far away from his new friends. Disenchantment occasionally finds comic frisson in the clash between rampant death and its characters’ sitcom-scaled problems, but more often it left me wondering: Why am I supposed to care about elf ennui when everyone is dying? The ratio of good to bad jokes grows increasingly out of whack as the season grinds on, and by the finale, I fear I had fallen fully into don’t-give-a-shit mode. The last episode insists it’s suspenseful and exciting that wicked magic has turned almost everyone in Bean’s kingdom to stone but, if anything, that must be a relief for them. They’d just be killed for a joke next season anyway.
The Dragon Prince and Disenchantment stream on Netflix.