New York Times - January 23, 2005

FOR YOUNG VIEWERS; Every Nation Needs a Dragon


IF told that their teenage son was a fire-breathing dragon, most parents of adolescent boys probably wouldn't show much surprise -- what pubescent kid isn't? But for Jake Long, it's no joke. He really is a fire-breathing dragon, at least part of the time; otherwise he's a typical 13-year-old Manhattan middle school student, hurtling through life on a skateboard with his pals Spud, a mellow slacker, and Trixie, a homegirl with attitude. The son of a Chinese mother and a father from the Midwest, Jake exemplifies the American melting pot with an extra-strong dash of Asian hot sauce.

Going through a kind of dragon boot camp under the stern but kindly direction of his Chinese grandfather, Jake (the voice of Dante Basco) is learning to harness his powers so he can protect New York's magical population. His efforts can be seen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. on ''American Dragon: Jake Long,'' a new animated series shown on Disney Channel.

''The idea is that magical creatures used to be very prevalent, but as the human population grew, the creatures decided to hide in the forest or move underground,'' Jeff Goode, the show's creator, said.

Trolls living in the sewer, mermaids working in bridge tollbooths and leprechauns operating a stock exchange may not be everyone's vision of the city's diversity, but if you live in New York, it may explain a few things.

''You never see them from the waist down,'' Christian Roman, who directs ''American Dragon,'' said, referring to toll workers. ''At the end of the day, they just jump into the water.''

The show is admittedly influenced by the ''Men in Black'' movies, with their droves of hidden space aliens. ''It's chock-full of homages to a lot of things,'' Mr. Goode said, including the ''Harry Potter,'' ''Lord of the Rings'' and ''Star Wars'' sagas. (There's even a scene in which Jake's archenemy, the Huntsman, is seen sitting as his helmet is lowered over his badly scarred head, la Darth Vader.) But in one respect the series is unusual, at least to Western audiences: the dragon is a good guy, the dragon slayer a villain. ''Dragons in all Oriental cultures tend to be much more benevolent,'' Mr. Goode said. ''There are myths about lost travelers who get help from an old man who they later find out was a dragon.''

''American Dragon'' is one of the few cartoon series with a cultural consultant: Yunxiang Yan, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, advises on the Chinese folklore elements, which include Jake's sidekick Fu Dog, a 600-year-old shar-pei. Although he talks like a Brooklyn cabdriver, he's based on the lionlike foo dogs that are guardians in Chinese stories.

But while Jake's character is rooted in Asian tradition, he taps into other mythologies. ''Dragons are important mythical characters in almost every culture, but not in America,'' Mr. Goode said. In the show, every other nation has its own dragon protector, but the United States hasn't been assigned one yet. That role falls to Jake. The idea is young country, young dragon.

''American Dragon'' also has its share of young humor. When Jake first tries to exhale fire, the flames don't issue from his mouth; instead, they -- yes, you guessed it. But fiery flatulence notwithstanding, Mr. Roman, the director, said he thought the show had many fresh twists to appeal to its intended audience of 6- to 11-year-olds. Jake's crush, for instance, is not just a beautiful blond classmate called Rose; she also turns out to be the Huntsman's niece and a petite henchwoman in training. A lilting lovely at school, she could easily audition for the ''Kill Bill'' movies when she's in her Huntsgirl persona.

''She'll not only appeal to girls,'' Mr. Roman said, ''but there's this idea of 'Wow, but Jake's in love with her! What's going to happen?' You don't see that in a lot of Disney cartoons.''

Laurel Graeber

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