Several prominent video game adaptations have debuted under the Netflix tentpole, making quite the splash in recent years. One only needs to take a peek at Frederator Studios’ adaptation of Castlevania to appreciate why these adult animated series pose such promise for profitability, and create interest among devoted fans and new acolytes. Further seizing the moment, Netflix presents DOTA: Dragon’s Blood, based on Dota 2, the highly popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game that took the world by storm, beginning in 2013. For this series, showrunner Ashley Miller and Studio Mir expunge much of Dota 2’s tactical elements and condense the vast lore for streaming consumption. However, the practice of adapting this electronic mythology proves tricky. For all the immersive landscapes and vibrant animation on display, one cannot overlook the unfocused character development and broad brush strokes in world building.
DOTA: Dragon’s Blood begins with an omniscient narrator telling the origins of the impartial Primordial Mind, its divine acts of creation and the Mind’s internal division: the Radiant (thought) versus the Dire (action). The narrator introduces Terrorblade (JB Blanc), a demon who plans to remake the world in his own image, which sets the stage for the gallant Davion (Yuri Lowenthal), the Dragon Knight; a heroic lad and member of a noble order, entrusted with the task of slaying the dragons and demons. Upon the heels of a successful battle, Davion encounters Terrorblade and nearly gets ensnared in a Faustian bargain. Fortunately, divine intervention prevails, and in an ironic twist of fate, Slyrak (Tony Todd), the Ember Eldwurm (old powerful dragon) sacrifices himself and saves Davion, but not before forcibly merging his dragon body with that of the young nobleman. Now, with the help of Mirana (Lara Pulver), the Princess of the Moon, and her female squire, Marcie, Davion sets off to track down a sage who can exorcise Slyrak from him. At the same time, Mirana seeks information regarding the stolen lotuses of Selemene (Alix Wilton Regan), the Goddess of the Moon. A young elf named Fymryn (Freya Tingley) steals the lotuses to bring back her dead goddess, Mene, but doesn’t anticipate the resulting war between her village of Coedwig and the Dark Moon Order that serves Selemene. At the same time, Davion must evade capture from Kaden (Anson Mount), Slyrak’s dragon knight adversary, and track down the outlaw hellion Terrorblade.
More by Peter Bell: Review: ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’
Miller and his team cherry-pick an impressive roster of Dota 2 heroes and eternal beings, however their prioritization of characters in the eight-part series is questionable, especially in relation to tying all the story elements back to Davion and the Eldwurms. As the main protagonist, Davion isn’t well-developed, as he engages in the plot as a blank slate video game avatar, one that waits for players to fill the void. Only Mirana effectively penetrates his stiff knight persona. Davion enter the series with substantial emotional and psychological baggage, following the destruction of his parents and his village by dragons. Yet it’s Mirana who receives an entire episode to come to term with her faults and fears.
Most enjoyable are show-stealing characters like the sage Invoker (Troy Baker) and Goddess Selemene. Their interactions make for great operatic drama, and while not an exact recreation, theirs is a pairing that shares a likeness to Calypso and Odysseus. The way that Selemene feeds off people’s energy is both beautifully dreamlike and also rather ghoulish, bordering on vampirism. The sage, while his powers are inhuman, has the most relatable motivations and proves to be the entire through line for the show, which is quite surprising given the infrequent appearances of Terrorblade, a major threat. The war between the Dark Moon Order and the elves that adore Mene overshadows the urgency of Terrorblade’s quest for his goals and the looming danger for several Eldwurms and Davion.
More by Peter Bell: The Birth of Suzuki Action and Style: ‘Youth of the Beast’
The clash between the Dark Moon Order and the elves is fairly engaging, even if it does steal too much screen time. Rather than creating a tone similar to The Lord of the Rings, the writing staff and animators channel Apocalypse Now . At first, this a tad jarring, considering that at any moment the Gods and Goddesses can swoop down and intervene, but the appearance of the moon rider, Luna (Kari Wahlgren), serves well as the audience’s insider perspective into the “heart of darkness.” Luna’s accounts of both hating and loving her lustful murdering raids are reminiscent of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s 1990 collection of short stories about the U.S. Army’s Green Berets during the Vietnam War.
The animation serves as the glue that keeps the series humming along. While its “wow” factor is by no means on the level of Studio Ghibli, Studio Mir proves that consistency is everything in DOTA: Dragon’s Blood. There isn’t a constant bombardment of amazing shots, but rather a plethora of correct character models, sharp physicality and facial fluctuations. The show’s style is a hybrid of medieval manga a la Berserk and the clean line style that one typically sees in the work of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. It’s the right combination for creating fantasy, particularly for a global audience. The lighting and shadow rendering is superb, whether in a bar or a castle. A stand-out action piece emerges during the chase sequence between Slyrak and Mirana. The skill of art director Kim Il Wang and director Park So Young, along with the talent of Studio Mir’s animation team, are on display when watching Marcie mount the Princess’ trustee tiger, Sagan, to rescue Mirana from Slyrak’s fiery jaws, and then dash down the crumbling snowy mountain top. The only major fault with the art and animation lies in the design of Slyrak and Davion’s hybrid form. The transformation process appears more akin to a CGI Iron Man sequence than a horrific spontaneous change from beast to man. The resulting hybrid creature doesn’t have an intimidating presence, and resembles nothing more than an extreme version of a Pokémon. When Kaden and Slyrak go at it, the design choice kills the mood.
More by Peter Bell: Review: Ben Hozie’s ‘PVT Chat’
Overall, DOTA: Dragon’s Blood is beautifully rendered and teeming with life around every mountain top. As in the game, the plot potential seems limitless. However, in the grand scheme of things, Miller’s vision proves to be temporal. Any one of these characters or scenarios could constitute their own standalone series. A better approach may have been presenting DOTA: Dragon’s Blood as an anthology rather than a linear production. One series could focus on dragons and another on the crusades of the Dark Moon Order. The Invoker declares to Fymryn, “The Old Story is over… we will write a new one together.” I am still waiting for one story that is whole. All these books, all this magic, yeah, they have potential. But what exactly is DOTA: Dragon’s Blood trying to say? Miller and his writing team fall somewhat short when trying to master the art of plate spinning; they fastidiously twirl colorful china but lack steady momentum. The plates teeter but don’t quite crash to the ground.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.