DOTA: Dragon’s Blood on Netflix is a Video Game-Based Adult “Anime” That Bleeds Potential
DOTA: Dragon’s Blood is a fantasy that bleeds hard. And this will startle animation fans who discern this European-based fantasy, created by Ashley Edward Miller, as one of the more direct spiritual descendants of the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, both sharing a writer (Avatar creator Bryan Konietzko is credited as Television Writer) and the Seoul-based Studio Mir that colored The Legend of Korra. Except unlike other western cartoons with the influential DNA of Avatar, Dragon’s Blood is not rendered for kiddies and leans toward replicating the success of the highly regarded and also video game-adapted animeqsue Castlevania on Netflix.
After a lucrative day of dragon slaying, Dragon Knight Davion (Yuri Lowenthal, dutifully noble and youthful) basks in the adoration of a village. However, his misfortunes begin when he re-investigates a dragon burrow and witnesses a dragon (Tony Todd, Dee Bradley Baker), called an “eldwyrm,” locked in battle with a bloodthirstier evil spirit. Although Davian is a dragon slayer, he discerns the greater evil and assists his sworn enemy. However, his unexpected dragon ally ambushes him and the Knight is left with a mysterious condition that leaves him waking up bloodied and naked with no memory of the event. He crosses path with the disgraced Princess Mirana (a no-nonsense Laura Pulver) — former Moon Princess, now a “Princess of Nothing” if you will — who seeks to restore her dignity and retrieve the magical lotuses for her own moon goddess, and she is accompanied by her enigmatic and comedic non-speaking servant, underestimated in size but formidable in her combat.
And who snatched those sacred lotuses? A young elven (Coedwig) woman, Fymryn (Freya Tingley, channeling the innocence of Deet from The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance). She’s blessed with super speed and shapeshifting unlike her fellow Coedwigs. Persuaded by old stories, she believes that the lotuses can restore her own slain goddess. But she has to confront the consequences of her theft and possibly the misreading of the old stories.
I do not come with knowledge of the source material, the multiplayer online battle arena video game by Valve, which co-produced the show with Netflix. That a show was sourced from a video game wasn’t a hindrance to my enjoyment of the hard-lined Castlevania on Netflix, which adopted the template of the plot and characters from the Konami franchise and spun compelling protagonists and antagonists confronting — or inflicting — the callousness of a dog-eat-dog world. Dragon’s Blood sees its internal shortcomings and imaginative strengths separate from the source material, although elements like its DOTA title (that it apparently stands for “Defense of the Ancients” in the source is not present here) can be identified as an odd carry-over.
And like the dour Castlevania, it isn’t a humorless fantasy. The script allots itself a toned-down shade of the jovial wit that cemented the family-friendly comfort of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra, and Voltron: Legendary Defenders. But Dota lives its TV-MA edge with blood-drenched flesh-piercing violence, profanity, and some eye candy sexiness (brace yourself for fanart of Davion’s hunky bod). But if you’ll looking for disarming charm, the amiable-enough Dragon’s Blood is dialed down despite duly crossing out a checklist of what would grab viewers of the Avatar universe: The familiar character templates derived from the Studio Mir’s character sheet, magic (such as the then-Moon Princess firing an arrow at the moon so it can multiply and supercharge the arrows to rain down on her adversary), a cast trading witty banter, adventure across fantastical worldbuilding, and interpersonal conflicts melded into the epic stakes.
It is no doubt the latest imaginative showcase of Studio Mir, which also brought you the childlike Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and Voltron as well as the theatrical Chinese Ghibliesque Big Fish and Begonia. Studio Mir’s fight sequences remain balletically proficient as ever, which is present in the swiftness of the “camera” swiveling to steer the momentum of the Princess swaying her steed to shoot an arrow. The Studio retains its prowess for glow-basking scenery (art director Kim Il Kwang) and it has a knack for hurling characters into psychedelic realms, holographic, dreamlike, or between-dimensional. Midway, without giving away much, there arrives a sequence with a flurry of exquisite voicework, creature designs, and the rising psychological, situational, and long-term stakes.
But for the overall lore, it takes a while for the cohesion of multiple focuses and forces in the first season when the themes of loyalty, dogma, faith, and honor pronounce themselves in the heroism, atrocities, reluctant alliances, and prayers to deities that may not listen. But even through the straightforward eight-episode pacing, it seems starved for a meditation on its idiosyncrasies in its luminous worlds and character dynamics. For example, the script deploys a stagnant device for Fymryn to exposits the myth that motived her theft without visual accompaniment — in contrast to more expressive hardier flashback sequences. Yet another family-oriented animation of the Avatar lineage The Dragon Prince benefited from sitting down with the moral contradictions and the yearnings of its heroes and antagonists shaped by the politics of their world. Fymryn blithely inquiring about how humans practice monogamy while her elven society operates as “pods” with polyamorous partners is the most the fantasy world’s internal cultures feel lived in. And yes, of course, the Knight and Princess will have romantic feelings and you’ll definitely find more compelling obligatory forefront heteronormative pairings in other western animation.
In particular, Mirana’s deference for a goddess who allegedly “fixed” her and other souls is intriguing on paper but is processed surface level in execution so far. This shortcoming stands out because Moon Goddess Selemene (Alix Wilton Regan) is so vividly imagined as a celestial who communes with her worshippers in dreamscapes then sadistically consumes their energy. Love for her is 100% transactional and conditional. Her sensually demanding “Do you love me?” is almost her catchphrase. Not unlike the depiction of deities in adult-oriented anime-based productions like Onyx Equinox and God of Zeus, Selemene feels forged on the potent idea that fictional gods represent the human demons in our life that we may have loved and adored. Though a further fleshing out on her constructed savior narrative that acquired her sects, worshippers, and love from the leading individuals and the world feels saved for next season. Also nearly as intriguing is Selemene’s military champion and crusader, the merciless snow-haired Luna (a chilling Kari Wahlgren, and the perfect foil to Pulver), who drenches herself in atrocities to convince herself that it is good for her goddess and her soul. Luna could be close to being considered first-season Fire Prince Zuko of Avatar, just as dogmatic to a familial dictator and brooding but sans the sympathetic family tragedy in backstory, honor, and vulnerability of age. She’s far from growing out of moral downfalls.
It takes a while for interpersonal matters and motives to ignite in the fussy focuses, especially in the penultimate episode where intersecting secrets and insecurities led to heartbreaking conversations and payoffs. So far, when you place this show against the other spiritual descendants of the creativity, wit, and character camaraderie in the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, it checks while falling short of the firecracker sparks. But its worldly scenery, physicality, and here-and-there dramatic touches are no less a not-surprising display of Studio Mir’s talents. The world and its players have more potential than they harbor promises.
The first season of DOTA: Dragon’s Blood is available on Netflix.