Heads Up!: I was able to view this early with a screener. Thank you, Netflix!
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Video games have always been notoriously difficult to translate into other mediums. There have been some success stories like the very first Tomb Raider, the original Mortal Kombat, Detective Pikachu, and to some degree, 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Still, even with those few successes, it’s not like a lot of them couldn’t have been better. Even the better video game films still have flaws that raise them to mostly entertaining and not much else. Some video game films are just liked because of how bad they are. Some adaptations, however, do seem to put in the effort to trying to capture the magic, the lore, the characters, and so on behind the property, and don’t treat it like it’s another gig. However, one of the biggest challenges is to grab the attention of the viewers who are not familiar with the brand. If you can grab people who don’t play your game or read your book, then you should be on the right track. What direction does Dota: Dragon’s Blood go into?
Based on the hit Valve series, specifically Dota 2, this “anime” series is created by Ashley Miller and produced by Ashley Miller, Ki Hyun Ryu, Eugene Lee, and Steven Melching. The show came off of the heels of 2020’s Dragon’s Dogma, which to many, was a failure of capturing that video game’s spirit. Luckily, one of the bigger selling points outside of being a show based on a popular video game, is that it was produced by Studio MIR, the same studio behind Avatar The Last Airbender, Netflix/DreamWorks Voltron, and helped out with the best cartoon of 2020, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. So, does the show succeed in being faithful and good to newcomers? Well, let’s pick up our dragon-slaying swords and take a look!
Our main story involves Davion, voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, a famed Dragon Knight, who, well, specializes in slaying dragons. After coming to the savior of a town in dire straits of getting attacked by a dragon, Davion and his cohort encounter a woman, well, a princess in hiding named Mirana, voiced by Lara Pulver. While making sure she and her compatriot get out of a situation at a bar, Davion then hears the word of the captain of the guards going deep into a pit where a supposed Eldwurm, basically a dragon that rules over others is hiding. As he finds the captain of the guards, Davion realizes an evil force known as Terrorblade, voiced by JB Blanc, has taken the captain over and wants to possess an Eldwurm known as Slyrak the Ember Eldwurm, voiced by the Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Davion and Slyrak defeat Terrorblade for now, but the fight leaves Slyrak in a dire condition. Davion decides to give him the warrior’s death, but Slyrak pulls a last-minute move and ends up bonding with Davion. Luckily for Mirana, she and her right hand find Davion in a forest at a later point with no memory of his actions. The three then go on an adventure to do a few things including helping get Davion his memory back and to get back these special lotus flowers that were stolen from Mirana. The plot gets even denser when the story gets entangled with a cult-like group, a sorcerer that lives in a hidden tower, and so much more.
Yeah, that is right off the bat, the biggest problem with this show. For the first eight episodes, they build up a very Game of Thrones-style world-building with it focusing on a few heroes from the game, but filling it up with heavy amounts of lore, backstories, and multiple plot threads going on all at the same time. It gets to be a touch overbearing. It has a much more interesting world than say, Netflix’s previous anime based on a fantasy video game, Dragon’s Dogma. While Dota does have a familiar fantasy setting, it’s not as rampantly sexist, misogynistic, or filled with flawed ideals like feudalism and slavery are a good idea, and redistribution of wealth to the poor is bad actually. Yeah, Dragon’s Dogma didn’t have a great story and these elements flew past me because of how boring Dogma was. Anyway, major elements that the show introduces early on are either pushed to the side until the last episode or are sidelined for other story beats. For example, Terrorblade only shows up in the first and last episode. When I got to the final episode of the first season, it hit me that this was a season made to set up everything for the next season more than make the first season more impactful. There are no real satisfying arcs for the main characters and it ends on a fairly annoying cliffhanger for a second season.
Now, this isn’t to say there weren’t any story beats or characters I liked, but when it feels like the story isn’t going anywhere, or is going down another side path instead of sticking to the main road, then it feels grating to binge. However, I do like the characters. While they might be the more familiar and safe characters to base a series on, they are more compelling and likable than a lot of dark fantasy show heroes like in Dragon’s Dogma, where Ethan is a fairly bland and unlikable lead character. I know it’s not fun or fair to drag another show through the mud because it subjectively failed, but no matter what criticisms I have for Dota: Dragon’s Blood, it does what Dogma should have but didn’t do. I like Davion as a typical male swordsman, Mirana is a solid level-headed archer, and her right hand Marci is the best character in the show. There seems to be a bit more energy put into the characters and they aren’t simply trying to be like Game of Thrones. I want to be around these characters, and when the show focused on the drama of said characters, you can understand their point of view of why they are doing what they are, well, doing.
Animation-wise, I think it was smart to get a studio like Studio MIR on board with this project. The combination of 2D and CGI for the larger monsters makes for some great animation. The action is well-executed, and the characters are very expressive. You can even get subtle little details through some of the more unique characters like Marci who is one of the most expressive characters who doesn’t even say a single word. The English dub is also pretty good. Doesn’t hurt that you have a stellar voice cast that includes Yuri Lowenthal, Josh Keaton, Lara Pulver, Tony Todd, Troy Baker, Kari Wahlgren, Freya Tingley, Stephanie Jacobsen, Anson Mount, and JB Blanc. The music composed by Dino Meneghin is solid, but I wouldn’t call it the most memorable soundtrack. It kind of has a Game of Thrones and familiar fantasy-sounding tunes, but they get the job done.
While flawed and a bit too ambitious for its first season, Dota: Dragon’s Blood is a solid fantasy action series. It has a small selection of interesting characters, a great voice cast, good action scenes, and an interesting lore-filled story. I’m not entirely sure if it’s loyal to the source material, but if you want something to raise your spirits after a lot of mediocre fantasy epics from recent years, this show is one of the better ones. I mean, you can argue it’s not great, but does your series have Tony Todd as a giant red dragon? Of course not. Next time, I have another screener for a Netflix film! You will have to wait and see what it is!
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Rating: Rent it!