Mythcreants places a lot of emphasis on ANTS, the four elements that we’ve found make stories popular: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. These are really important for new authors to consider, but we can also look at popular stories and see how they score. Last time, we graded Marvel’s new batch of Disney+ shows, but today we’re reaching a little further back to find three cartoon shows with similar vibes. They are Voltron: Legendary Defender, The Dragon Prince, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
We’re focusing on the first season of each show; otherwise, we’d be here all day. Each show gets a grade in the four ANTS categories using a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 means that aspect of engagement basically doesn’t exist, while a 10 represents true excellence. None of the Marvel shows managed to score any 10s; let’s see if this crop of contestants can do better.
Voltron: Legendary Defender
This show is a reboot of a popular ’80s
toy commercial cartoon, which was itself made by dubbing and re-editing a C-list anime called Beast King GoLion. The list of what they changed is fascinating, but in the modern incarnation, the story is fairly simple: five humans are chosen to pilot a giant robot called Voltron so they can overthrow the evil Galra Empire. Naturally, Voltron is a humanoid robot that is formed by combining five lion-shaped robots together, as one does. Our heroes are joined on their quest by Princess Allura and Coran the mechanic, and the seven of them set out to save all of known space from Galra tyranny.
We’re not off to a great start here, mostly because the five pilots are surprisingly bland. Each of them has exactly one identifying trait, and they aren’t very interesting. Observe:
- Hunk eats a lot.
- Lance makes jokes, but so does everyone else.
- Pidge likes technology.
- Keith is an edgy bad boy, but only sometimes.
- Shiro has a secret backstory that doesn’t come up much in the first season.
That’s about it. The interactions between different pilots have almost no dramatic flair, as none of them have anything interesting going on. It looks like Lance and Keith will have a rivalry at first, which could have been cool, but that peters out within a couple of episodes. Pidge occasionally wants to find her missing family but isn’t allowed to until later seasons. Shiro’s backstory has potential, but like Pidge’s family, it’s mostly kept in the background. There’s a brief moment where it looks like Pidge might be a trans guy, which could have helped, but instead we find out she’s just been pretending to be a boy for the flimsiest of reasons.*
Nor do the characters have anything special to offer in the sympathy or selflessness departments. They’re all fighting to defeat the Galra Empire, which has a certain measure of selflessness, but no more than heroes are expected to have. Most of their problems involve not fully understanding how to pilot their lion-robots, which isn’t compelling on its own. None of them are actively annoying, but they don’t do anything to grab your attention either.
Allura is a little better, as her family has a long history of conflict with the Galra. She’s the last survivor of her house, and nearly of her entire species,* which puts a lot of pressure on her and is good for creating sympathy. Unfortunately, she’s not one of the lion pilots, at least not yet, so her problems aren’t the story’s focus. Meanwhile, Coran is another comic-relief character in a show where lots of characters make jokes.
Final Score: 4
Voltron benefits a lot from its beautiful animation. Everything looks good, from the characters to the backgrounds, but especially the space battles. The laser and shield effects are truly gorgeous, and I would love to see that quality of animation brought to other scifi cartoons.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the show has going for it. The characters have little that’s new or exciting to offer, and the setting is pretty generic space opera. The Galra Empire has little to distinguish it from the countless evil empires that have come before, and most of the planets are your standard one-environment scifi worlds. Except for the planet that was actually a giant space turtle. That one’s pretty cool.
Then there’s Voltron itself, which is certainly different from most scifi settings. But that difference actually works against the show, as Voltron is seriously breaking theme. No one else in the setting uses animal-shaped robots that join up into a humanoid robot; they all use conventional space-opera ships instead. If the Voltron design is so powerful, why doesn’t anyone else use something similar? It’s like the Transformers suddenly appearing in Star Wars.
As a consolation prize, Allura’s spaceship-castle is pretty darn cool. It looks convincing in both forms, whether flying through space as a ship or sitting on the ground as a castle. My only question is why the orientation of the interior rooms never changes, since the castle technically flies with its roof facing foward. If this show were called Castle-Ship: The Legendary Defender, I’d probably give it a better rating.
Final Score: 5
Voltron continues its trend of getting steadily better. While the rank-and-file Galra soldiers are fairly pathetic, our heroes also encounter a series of powerful robots and monsters that actually pose a threat. Usually, these are defeated by unlocking some new function of Voltron, which is a perfectly serviceable way to win fights in a show’s first season.
The heroes also lose a few fights, which helps establish the Galra as a credible threat and raises tension. Granted, few of the lost fights are of real importance – nothing like the fall of Ba Sing Se in Avatar – but every bit helps. Allura even gets captured toward the season’s end, requiring the other heroes to go on a rescue mission that’s great for tension. It’s less great for gender dynamics, given that Allura is one of only two women in the main cast and she’s getting damseled, but that’s another conversation.
The biggest obstacle to tension is actually that the Galra feel too powerful as an enemy. Their empire is so huge that it extends beyond the galaxy, so it doesn’t feel like the heroes can possibly win. You’d think that would increase tension, but it does the opposite. Tension springs from uncertainty in the story’s outcome, and when it feels certain that the heroes will lose, tension drops.
At the same time, it seems like the Galra could overwhelm the heroes at any time but don’t for unexplained reasons. All they’d need to do is send two giant monsters rather than one or divert an overwhelming fleet from elsewhere in their inconceivably huge empire. It feels as if the bad guys are going easy on our heroes.
Final Score: 6
Things were looking up for Voltron, but now they’ve come crashing down again. The first season is fairly episodic, so it doesn’t feel like it’s building to anything. That could be fine if each episode had a satisfying payoff, but they rarely do. Our heroes liberate a few planets, but against such a massive empire, that hardly matters. The unspoken assumption is that the Galra will come back the moment our heroes go elsewhere.
The only episodic satisfaction comes from the times our heroes learn a new Voltron power. These new powers usually form the turning point of a major fight, and they make Voltron better at fighting, which has ramifications for the rest of the story. Still, this isn’t nearly enough. Normally, we could fall back on character arcs for satisfaction, but that cupboard is bare unless you count the writers’ arc where they’re about to make Lance and Keith rivals and then decide not to.
Then we have the season finale, which isn’t much use either. It’s a rescue mission for Allura, which at best means a restoration of the status quo with Allura no longer being captured. The writers try to spice it up by throwing in a wormhole malfunction that sends our heroes into the unknown depths of space, but that’s just a cliffhanger. Satisfaction is derived from conflicts being resolved, and almost nothing is resolved here.
Final Score: 3
The Dragon Prince
This next show is an epic fantasy extravaganza written by one-third of the creative team that brought you Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a story where two princes and their unlikely elf friend have to deliver a dragon egg back to its home. If they don’t, war will engulf the land. What could go wrong? A few things, as it turns out.
Our protagonist Callum is a pretty good character, all things considered. He has a very Sokka-like personality, full of sarcasm and self-deprecating jokes; he’s even got the same voice actor. His main goal is to learn primal magic, something that humans normally can’t do on account of not having the elves’ inborn powers.* This is really sympathetic; he’s putting in hard work to learn something that’s been denied to him by an accident of birth.
The issue with Callum being like Sokka is that everyone in this show is like Sokka. Seriously – I cannot think of a single character who doesn’t have Sokka’s distinctive sense of humor. It’s a great sense of humor, but when everyone’s doing it, the bonus likability turns into annoyance. Worse, it sabotages two of the show’s most important characters: Rayla and Viren.
Rayla is an assassin who joins up with our other heroes to form the core of Team Good. She hasn’t killed anyone yet, but she’s still a trained badass. That is, until it’s time for her to make a Sokka-style self-deprecating joke; then she suddenly doesn’t know what a whetstone is. Viren, meanwhile, is our main villain. When he gets all unsure and flustered, it just seems like the heroes will have it all their own way. Viren’s attachment further degrades when the show can’t decide if he’s supposed to be sympathetic or entirely evil. Sometimes he agonizes over his difficult choices; other times he orders the unnecessary deaths of children.
Our final good guy is Ezran, Callum’s eight-year-old brother. He’s… definitely in the show, which is about the most I can say for him. He isn’t grounded enough to come across like a real eight-year-old, but he doesn’t contribute anything to the quest either. In fact, he occasionally does the opposite, with his pet glow toad getting Team Good into trouble, which makes them both actively annoying.
One more character of note is Claudia, Viren’s sorcerous daughter. Unlike her father, Claudia actually manages to be a sympathetic antagonist, mostly because she doesn’t know the really evil stuff her dad gets up to. She’s also got autistic coding, which not only gives the show additional representation but also adds to her character. If all the characters were as good as Callum and Claudia, Dragon Prince would be flying high, but the rest pull it down.
Final Score: 5
The world of Dragon Prince is fairly generic high fantasy, if I’m being honest. The elves come in different flavors, like Moonshadow and Sunfire, but they’d still be right at home in Middle-earth. The dragons are of the talking rather than the monstrous variety, but that’s not exactly breaking new ground either. It’s still neat, just not particularly engaging.
The competing magic systems are much more interesting. Primal magic draws its power from environmental sources like the sun and the moon, while so-called dark magic gets power from sacrificing magical plants and animals. Elves only use primal magic, and they denounce dark magic as evil, which is convenient for them as humans are limited to dark magic alone.
That’s pretty cool and adds decent novelty to the story. The downside is that neither form of magic is very well themed. Primal magic includes the sun, moon, and stars, but also the sky, which is different somehow. Meanwhile, dark magic seems to do whatever the writers want it to do in a given scene. We also have a setting that appears not to have been changed much by all the magic flying around, and the show is frustratingly vague over why dark magic is supposed to be evil.
Animation-wise, Dragon Prince is very pretty, but the first season has a strange effect that makes it look like the video is constantly lagging. Apparently, this was done on purpose to give the action more weight. I can’t say if it succeeded or not, but I can say that it constantly had me checking my internet connection to see if something was wrong. The good news is that season two doesn’t have the same problem, but that’s too late to help the show in this article.
Final Score: 4
Here Dragon Prince reaches its lowest point, and it’s all due to one factor: Viren is a terrible villain. His motivation and plans are often muddled, but the real problem is that despite powerful magic, he’s completely incompetent. He’s trying to take over the main human kingdom so he can go to war with the elves, but just about everyone he talks to sees right through his plans. The only time he makes any progress is when his enemies inexplicably make terrible choices, like when a rival general leaves just one person to watch him.
Even if Viren were better at politics, his eventual goal doesn’t give us much reason to be worried. He wants to attack the elves, but everything we’ve seen suggests that any such attack would be easily repulsed on account of how overpowered the elves are. The show opens with a small team of elven assassins going after the human kings, and despite plenty of forewarning, the humans are powerless to stop them.
Viren does have minions in the form of his children, Soren and Claudia. Soren is presumably a good fighter, but he spends too much time goofing off for that to really shine through. Remember, most characters in Dragon Prince are Sokka to one degree or another. Claudia has powerful magic, but it’s so vague that both her victories and her defeats seem arbitrary. Rather than tensely anticipating Claudia’s next move, we’re just waiting to see if the writers will give her an auto-win card today.
Of course, there are sources of tension other than Viren and his minions. The main characters get into trouble each episode, usually by upsetting a local monster. But those conflicts aren’t very important compared to Viren’s plotting, so they don’t help much.
Final Score: 3
Believe it or not, Dragon Prince’s fortunes are about to improve because it actually resolves problems in the season finale. First, we have the problem of Rayla’s hand. You see, at the beginning of the season, she got stuck with a steadily tightening magical band around her wrist. If she can’t find a way to remove it, she’ll lose the entire hand.
I have reservations about a plot where the main consequence of failure is gaining a disability, but it’s at least a problem that Rayla struggles with over the course of the season and then resolves in the climax when she is finally able to get the band off her wrist. Yay!
We also get some resolution on the egg plot, even though our heroes are still far from delivering it. How does that happen? First, a problem occurs where the egg appears to be dying, sending our heroes into a scramble for ways to heal it. This problem is resolved in the finale when, thanks to the characters’ efforts, the egg hatches into a baby dragon. This hatchling still needs to be returned to his home, but a major child arc has been resolved.
In both instances, we have resolutions that change the status quo. Rayla’s hand is no longer in danger, and the egg is now a living dragon. These changes give the ending weight, unlike what happened in Voltron, where the heroes restore things to the way they were before.
Final Score: 7
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
It’s our second adaptation of a beloved children’s cartoon from the ’80s, only without the anime backstory. That’s disappointing, but we must soldier on. In this reboot, we see Adora defect from the Horde, find a magic sword, join the Princess Rebellion, and discover that the real rebellion was the friends she made along the way. Also, the magic sword lets her put on about a foot of height and fifty pounds of muscle, so that’s nice.
Spoiler alert: it’s pretty darned high. She-Ra has a big cast, and it’s honestly impressive how distinct the characters are. Adora, Bow, and Glimmer are the most prominent faces of Team Good, and they’re rarely in danger of getting mixed up. On the surface, Glimmer is impulsive, Bow is methodical, and Adora is unsure of herself. That’s good for keeping them memorable, but they each get plenty of depth as well, exploring issues like Glimmer’s conflict with her mother and Adora’s guilt over serving the Horde.
The secondary heroes don’t have as much screen time, but they’re still pretty memorable. The princesses each have their own schtick, be it elemental theming or an obsession with machines. The only characters I’d rate as subpar are Sea Hawk and Angella. Angella is an annoying hindrance character, with little purpose in the show other than shutting down the heroes’ ideas. Meanwhile, Sea Hawk is a persistent suitor, pressuring Mermista for a relationship long after she’s said no.
In a difficult feat, the villains also have a high degree of attachment. Catra is the standout pick, as her feelings for Adora conflict with her loyalty to the Horde. She’d be even better if it were clear why she’s loyal to the Horde in the first place, but she’s still a great character. Shadow Weaver is also surprisingly compelling. She’s clearly an abusive parental figure to Catra and Adora, so we’re not cheering for her, but she’s fun to watch anyway. Secondary bad guys like Scorpia and Adora’s old squad also help humanize the villains.
A final benefit is just how many characters in this show are queer. Most of that comes from coding in the first season, but that’s okay since the show doesn’t give preferential treatment to straight relationships. When Bow* goes to a dance with Princess Perfuma, Catra goes to the same dance with Scorpia. While queer representation is getting better, especially in the arena of children’s cartoons, this is still enough to give She-Ra a boost.
Final Score: 8
Not too shabby, all things considered. She-Ra’s world features a creepy haunted forest and an interesting juxtaposition of modern magic and ancient technology. The various princesses’ realms are all well themed, if a bit one note. Plants for the plant princess, ice for the ice princess, etc.
Meanwhile, the bad guys’ Fright Zone is very cool looking, if a bit confused in its purpose. The whole place is made of rusting pipes and shadowed towers, signaling its evil for all to see. The problem is that this is supposed to be a setting where otherwise reasonable people like Adora and Scorpia can be convinced to fight for the Horde, and that’s hard to swallow when the bad guys’ headquarters is so obviously evil and also called the “Fright Zone.”
That’s one of several areas where the show struggles with the baggage of its adaptation. The original cartoon had a super evil Fright Zone, so the reboot needs one too, even though it doesn’t fit with this new version of the Horde. Adora’s transformation into She-Ra has the same problem. She looks a little different, but she’s still the same person, so why bother with a new name?* And why does she shout “for the honor of Grayskull” when there’s no such thing in this show? All holdovers from the original.
Fortunately, the other characters have a bunch of pretty cool powers to help make up the difference. The princesses each have a different type of elemental control, Glimmer has teleportation, and Bow has… Well, he has a bow, but also so many different types of arrows that it makes Hawkeye jealous.
Final Score: 6
She-Ra doesn’t fare so well in this category and is essentially the inverse of Dragon Prince. Where Viren is powerful but incompetent, Catra is really smart but doesn’t have enough power. To be fair, it’s great for villains to think on their feet and adjust to new problems, something Catra does very well. But they also need a base level of strength, and Catra doesn’t have that.
Against just the main three protagonists, Catra is always at a disadvantage. She’s fast and agile but not supernaturally so. Meanwhile, Glimmer can teleport and shoot lasers, Bow has more arrow types than there are stars in the sky, and Adora is an unstoppable juggernaut. Catra has Horde soldiers and robots, but those are consistently useless. At least in the intro, she has purple lightning coming from somewhere. Why isn’t that in the show?
Tension drops further when the other princesses get involved, as each of them is like a master-level bender from Avatar. The good guys theoretically have minions as well, but they’re never needed. The only way our heroes ever lose is by making obviously bad choices, like when the various overpowered princesses decide to isolate their realms instead of fighting together.
Other villains like Hordak and Shadow Weaver do have some impressive powers, and that helps, but Catra is the one our heroes fight most often. That’s great for drama between her and Adora but less great for tension. If only Catra had some purple lightning.
Final Score: 4
She-Ra’s first season builds up to a big Horde attack on Bright Moon Castle, the good guys’ main base of operations. This is reminiscent of how Avatar’s first season ends with the Fire Nation attacking the Northern Water Tribe, but it just doesn’t have the same impact.
The first reason is that the Horde’s chances of success don’t seem very high, on account of how underpowered Catra is. The writers do the best they can, showing that the Horde has more powerful robots now, but Catra’s lack of threat has already been firmly established. There is some satisfaction to be had from the other princesses deciding to help Bright Moon after all, but since their initial reluctance was so contrived, the effect is limited.
One point in She-Ra’s favor is that winning the battle does at least change the show’s status quo, as Bright Moon is safe from further attack for now. That’s better than nothing, but it would have meant a lot more if the good guys had taken out a major villain. Instead, Catra fails up, somehow getting a promotion despite losing the battle.
Final Score: 4
At 18 for Voltron, 19 for Dragon Prince, and 22 for She-Ra, our three shows largely lag behind Marvel’s live-action series, but that’s actually to be expected. With shorter episodes and a fraction of the budget,* it’s no surprise that these cartoons are a bit behind. Being aimed primarily at kids also limits what the shows can include, though that can help as well, with writers being less inclined to go grimdark for no reason. In fact, kids’ shows have been getting better across the board, so it’s only a matter of time before I rate more of them.
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