Why Animated Shows Like ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Dragon Prince’ Aren’t Just For Kids

In Culture, Featured, Tyler Carlos by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Tyler Carlos –

Spoilers Below

Traditionally, there has always been a hard line between television shows that are for adults and what television shows are for children, and we still see it everywhere in media today. Most television series aimed at grown-up audiences appear on the traditional networks, like ABC and NBC, or else subscription based television, such as HBO and Showtime. For kids, proper programming can be found on channels like Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. And for many years, that’s just the way things were. Kids had their channels, adults had their own.

But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked….

Joking aside, this line between what is a kid’s show and what is an adult’s show has begun to blur since the early 2000’s. A few television series come to mind, such as Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans and Young Justice. However, the show that best exemplifies this “blur” is, in my opinion, Nickelodeon’s 2006 breakout animated hit Avatar: The Last Airbender.

For those of you unaware, Avatar: The Last Airbender is about a young nomad named Aang and his friends as they set out to save a world in which some people have the ability to manipulate, or “bend,” the four elements. Aang, however, is the Avatar of this world, and it is his duty to maintain balance between the four nations due to his ability to bend all four elements. The show begins after the Avatar has been missing for 100 years and the Fire Nation, led by the evil Fire Lord, is on the brink of conquering the entire world.

Despite the series premiering on Nickelodeon, it quickly became a nationwide hit and garnered an audience of both kids and adults, and still retains a cult following to this day. The series ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2008, premiering 61 episodes in all. The series also led to a continuation comic book series, a spin-off television series, The Legend of Korra, in 2012, and to this day, the series holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. To top it off, it was recently announced that Netflix will be adapting the original animated show into a live action series led by the original creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.

Fast-forward to today, and the dynamic duo mentioned above have done it again, this time, with a new Netflix original animated series titled The Dragon Prince. This series takes place in a magical world inhabited by warriors, sages, elves, humans, and – you guessed it – dragons. In this story, the magical creatures and humans have been divided on two opposite sides of the same continent, and guarding the border is the Dragon King. However, the humans have led a war against the magical land of Xadia for years, and the top casualty of this war was none other than the Dragon King and his only egg, the Dragon Prince. But when two young princes and a female elf find the Dragon Prince’s egg hidden in the dark sage’s chambers, they embark on a journey to return the egg to the Dragon Queen and end the war between their two lands.

Just like Avatar before it, The Dragon Prince has garnered strong reviews from both critics and audiences alike. The series currently holds a 100% critics score and 90% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes for season 1, and it has been renewed by Netflix for a second season to be released in 2019.

Apart from the top notch stories, what makes these two series so strong among all types of audiences is that the creators are not afraid of dealing with themes that are usually not found in “kids shows.” In an interview published on October 10, Aaron Ehasz, who served as head writer on Avatar and co-creator of The Dragon Prince, “We learned [on Avatar] that there was a super intelligent, passionate audience that wanted material that was nuanced and detailed and authentic.” And they definitely deliver, particularly in how they deal with difficult topics. Here are a few examples:

Disabilities Do Not Hinder You

One of the most impactful themes displayed in these two shows is one that we don’t see too often. In both of these shows, there is at least one character that has some kind of noticeable disability. In Avatar, the young Earthbender Toph is blind, though this doesn’t stop her from being one of the strongest characters in the entire show. Toph uses the gift of Earthbending to adapt to the world around her, and in the end, her blindness is not a hindrance. In fact, it in some ways makes her stronger, because as she has a deeper connection to her abilities much more than other characters, she is able to develop a new bending technique that no other bender had been able to perform up to that point.

On The Dragon Prince, we are introduced to General Amaya, who also happens to be the main characters’ aunt. Amaya is mute, and at all times, has an interpreter with her as she speaks through sign language. Again, however, this does not stop her from being one of the strongest characters in the show- in fact, I would argue that she is THE strongest character, apart from, perhaps, the series villain. She leads by example and tells people exactly what she is thinking. She is a soldier first and defends her family with honor. She doesn’t let her muteness define her.

Dealing With Death

The element that grounds these two series the most is the fact that death is a real possibility. Many children’s stories shy away almost completely from the idea of death, but these two shows, in particular, embrace it. I’m not saying that characters are dying left and right like some animated version of Game of Thrones. But these characters on both shows have all been, in some way, affected by death.

On Avatar, there are entire episodes dedicated to these characters dealing with the death of their loved ones. Aang is the last remaining member of a nation that has been entirely eradicated- and he has to take time to grieve once he discovers this fact. Toward the end of the series, the waterbender Katara sets out to find the firebender that killed the mother that she still grieves for, but when she finds him, she finally comes to grip with her mother’s death and chooses to forgive rather than take vengeance. But the most heart wrenching moment of the series is in episode 215, titled “The Tales of Ba Sing Se.” In this episode, the loveable Uncle Iroh gives honor to his deceased son on his birthday. This is especially emotional for many reasons, the greatest of which is that Uncle Iroh feels responsible for his son’s death and he still grieves despite his joyful demeanor.

The Dragon Prince deals with death as well, though perhaps it has not yet gotten as deep as Avatar (there have only been nine episodes, after all). But the main characters of the show have all been affected by the death of the queen, who is the mother to the two young princes Callum and Ezran and the sister of General Amaya. And the death of the Dragon King has certainly set some terrible events in motion. But the thing that sets this show, and Avatar, apart is that death is a real possibility. It is part of the world, making this series feel very grounded in reality, even if there are elves and magic.

Focus on What You’re Good At, Never Give Up on What You’re Bad At

There are two specific characters that I want to focus on for this. Of course, most, if not all, of the characters in both shows go through big changes and have to learn how to become better fighters and better people. But the two characters I want to hone in on are Sokka from Avatar and Callum from The Dragon Prince.

Sokka is the only one on Original Team Avatar who is not a bender. He’s always the one that seems to be left out of the big battles simply because he just can’t do what the others can. The writers addressed this fact in season 3, and led Sokka on a journey to figure out where he fits into this team. The team decides that Sokka needs to find his own master to train him, and they find a master swordsman who is willing to take Sokka on as a pupil. Throughout the series, Sokka’s bravery was never called into question, but this really gave Sokka the chance to grow as a character. He is able to show dedication to his training the way other characters have done throughout the series. This is a great example of finding the thing you’re good at and honing that skill. Everyone is good at something, even if you are seen as the weakest.

Callum, from The Dragon Prince, has many similarities to the character of Sokka. For one thing, both characters are voiced by the same actor, Jack DeSena. But Callum is the prince of his land, and with that comes certain expectations- particularly that he be good with a sword. Unfortunately, it seems like the sword is not his idea weapon. It should be noted that Callum is the stepson of the king, so he is technically not in the royal bloodline (Callum’s mother married the king before she died) and the role of prince does not come to perhaps as naturally as it should. But what’s great is, once Callum and Ezran begin their journey with a Moonshadow elf named Rayla, Callum finds that he has a knack for spellcasting. And when he casts a spell for the first time, he celebrates with shouts of delight at the idea that he did something right. Throughout the rest of season 1, Callum continues to work on his magic and embraces the idea of being a sage rather than a swordsman. Again, this is about “finding your thing,” though this seems to focus on finding your thing despite what may be expected. Callum is simply not a swordsman. It’s not his calling. But the minute he becomes a sage, that’s it for him. He wants to get better, something that he definitely didn’t feel when he was training with swords.

Real and Grounded

Overall, these two series are rooted in reality. They are grounded in the human experience. It doesn’t matter that the worlds of these series are filled with magic and dragons, because these characters, though young, deal with things that even adults have to deal with – death, disabilities, and finding yourself – sometimes, even more so than adults.

The power of these important themes is what makes these stories resonate with both adults and children. They speak to adults. They speak to children. They speak to everyone. These are real stories. They may not be true stories. But they are real. And that’s why they matter.

About the Author 

Tyler Carlos is a proud nerd originally from Baton Rouge, LA. He completed his undergraduate in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University, and graduated from JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing in 2016. In his off time, he enjoys Crossfit, escape rooms, and watching Gotham and This Is Us. His ultimate goal in life is to learn how to fly.

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