After binge-watching the whole season 1, my answer is: yes it does, or at least it has the potential to.
I’m saying this because the dragon prince possesses the 5 core qualities that made Avatar and Korra great shows.
All the series give us a group of protagonists made of 2 boys and 1 girl, that will be joined by other members.
The thing that all the series have in common is that each character is completely different from the others. Different origins, different views of the world, different abilities and different experiences. This makes the story interesting because those characters will have to learn to trust each other and know each other during the course of their journey.
For example, the fact that Katara, Toph, and Zuko possess different abilities is exactly what makes them valuable. Aang needs to master all the 4 elements and he can’t do that without learning from people that are different from him.
In The dragon prince, all the 3 members are valuable because of who they are and what they can do: Rayla is a skilled fighter, she can protect her teammates and the egg. Callum is a mage (sort of), he can learn how to use magic to help the team. And Ezran can talk to animals and has a special connection with the egg.
The moral dilemma
What made Avatar stand out in 2008 was the deep and complex relationship that the characters had with morality. Unlike other TV show for kids, where the hero always does the right thing and the villain always does the wrong thing, where anyone can make a mistake or change their minds.
When Aang decided to run away he condemned the world to 100 years of war. Zuko doesn’t just “stops being the bad guy” overnight, it takes him time and effort to realize his mistakes and become a better person.
In the legend of Korra, this moral dilemma is explored even further with 4 complex villains. Unlike Ozai (who was pretty much a textbook “evil guy”), Amon, Unalaq, Zaheer and Kuvira have clear motivations that are justified by some sort of injustice (a similar situation to Killmonger in Black Panther).
- Amon wants to eliminate the disadvantage that non-benders have when confronted with benders.
- Unalaq wants humans to respect the spirits
- Zaheer wants to make a world where everyone can be free and there isn’t one person (like the avatar) holding all the power
- Kuvira wants to unite the Earth kingdom and end the corrupt monarchy that has been hurting it
Because of those well written and compelling villains, The legend of Korra forces us to ask ourselves if the Avatar is wrong or if there is a solution that is not the obvious “good guy” and “bad guy” fist fight.
The politics and the villain of The dragon prince are still mysterious and they will probably be explored more in the next seasons. But by far the show has focused on war and revenge. It hints at the fact that war is far more complex than what it may seem and that revenge doesn’t bring justice, just more violence.
The respect for characters with disabilities
It’s a sad truth that most TV shows and movies depict people with disabilities poorly. How many times have you watched an episode that revolved around a bitter, rude person with one or more disabilities that has that kind of attitude because of his physical or mental problems?
This kind of narrative is a classic. The bitter guy in the wheelchair needs to learn from the perfectly able protagonist how to accept himself or how to regain confidence in himself. Not exactly the best kind of representation.
Fortunately, in recent years both TV and cinema are trying to improve and give an arc and a personality to people with disabilities (like Tyrion Lannister of Game of thrones).
But Avatar started doing that way before Game of thrones. Toph, a blind little girl who manages to see the world thanks to her earthbending skills, is still one of the most beloved characters in the series.
Toph managed to become a skilled fighter, an independent business woman and even a police chief thanks to her skills and her strong personality. Her disability is part of her character and influences her story, but it doesn’t define her. As she probably would say, she is not JUST a blind little girl, she is much more.
In The legend of Korra, for example, we have Ming-Hua, a woman without arms who uses her waterbending skills to fight.
Korra herself at the end of season 3 and the whole season 4 suffers from PTSD and her main goal is to find the will to fight after being severely injured and confined to a wheelchair.
We haven’t seen much of General Amaya in the first season of The dragon prince, but I have the feeling that she will play an important role later in the story. For now what we know about her is that she is the leader of an important military group, she is smart, she is a skilled fighter and she cares about her nephews.
Amaya’s situation is similar to real life. In the real world, blind people cannot “see” through their feet like Toph, nor people who miss a limb can replace it with water like Ming-Hua. But Amaya (as far as we know) doesn’t rely on magic or the elements to compensate for her disability. She can be a strong warrior despite being deaf.
The message against animal cruelty
Avatar the last airbender won the Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States thanks to the episode titled “Appa’s lost days” in season 2.
Overall the aim of the episode was to shine a light on the issue of animal cruelty. The writers managed to do so by using an already sympathetic character familiar to the audience (Appa, Aang’s flying bison) to show how badly animals in circuses can be treated.
In The legend of Korra environmental and animal issues come back during and after season 2. Korra as the Avatar is supposed to be the bridge between the spirit world and the human world. When one of those two is out of balance it’s her duty to step up and fix the problem, this often involves teaching humans about respecting the spirits.
Here the message against animal cruelty is not as explicit as in Avatar, but it’s clear that the spirit world is a metaphor for nature and animals.
The first season of The dragon prince (again) doesn’t reveal much, but what we know for sure is that the core of the conflict revolves around an animal. It’s basically implied that the action of stealing the dragon egg is a war crime, or anyway something that he humans should regret.
The elves seem to respect and even admire the dragons and they will do anything to protect them. While the humans seem to consider those creatures dangerous weapons that must be destroyed or used in war.
The complex politics
The thing I like most about the two shows centered around the Avatar universe is the fact that neither of them depicts politics as a “black and white” problem.
The last airbender seems to go that way during its first 3 seasons, where the Fire Nation is feared or hated by most of the “good” characters. But in season 3 our protagonists visit the Fire Nation and realize that it’s a country full of history and well-meaning people that have been deceived by a long line of dictators. This is explained better when Zuko confronts his father in season 3:
“Growing up we were taught that the fire nation was the greatest civilization in history, and somehow, the war was our way to share our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was! The people of the world are terrified by the fire nation. They don’t see our greatness, they hate us!”
The legend of Korra went even further, giving each of its villains compelling ideals and important messages. Zaheer is probably the best villain of the series and his vision of the world is summoned by the speech he gives while killing the vane and tyrannical Earth Queen.
“I don’t believe in queens. You think that freedom is something that you can give or take on a whim. But to your people freedom is just as essential as air. And without it, there is no life, there is only darkness.”
The dragon prince gives us a glimpse of the complexity of the politics of its world. But thanks to the speech that King Harrow gives to his stepson.
“There are centuries of history, generations of wrongs and crimes on both sides. I am responsible for some of those wrongs. I’ve done terrible things. I thought they were necessary… now I don’t know. But I do know I will pay the price for the choices I made.”
In conclusion, I can say that The dragon prince does have some problems, and it might seem that because of those problems it will never reach the standard of Avatar The last airbender or The legend of Korra.
But it’s important to remember that in early episodes, both those shows had problems too. Fortunately, their writers managed to find a way out of those problems and with time both shows became better and better.
The dragon prince has similar problems to its predecessors (the editing makes it hard to follow more than one storyline and the jokes sometimes have the wrong timing, but I’m confident that the creators will manage to bring the show to the level of the two avatars.