The Pokémon games tend to save the last three-stage evolutionary line listed in each generation for a set of monsters a cut above the rest; a rare find, but powerful if you can train them up, dubbed “pseudo-legendaries” in fan-slang. So, naturally, our last non-Legendary Pokémon from Kanto is the one line of genuine Dragon-types in the game, after a few pretenders.
Dratini himself is downright adorable, with a cute lil’ round snout, big glassy eyes, and a smooth pastel-blue body. Shoot, he just looks like the kind of thing a two-year-old would have as a stuffed animal. Plus, I deeply appreciate those little wing-fins where his ears would be. Would hey help him steer or swim better? Probably not! But it’s better than a complete shrugaroonie on how he steers himself, and it breaks up his design so that he’s not overly simple.
Dragonair is a lot of folks’ favorite in the line, and I’m not about to disagree with them. He’s got all manner of “folklore” elements spicing up a fairly elegant design that follows very closely after Dratini while still being distinguishable. There’s a little unicorn-horn in there, a few mystic orbs that must contain some deep power (even arranged in a little “rattlesnake” shape near his tail-tip), and his ear-wings look a bit more fairie-like now rather than Dratini’s fin-wings.
I do adore that spiral at the base of his ear-wings; a similar shape is used in a few other bits of media that I love, and it’s always come across a neat little way of connecting vestigial wings to places where anatomy dictates that wings should not go. All said and done, Dragonair makes for a good-looking middle evolution.
…then there’s Dragonite, who can be a little divisive. On his own, he’s a jolly ol’ chum – round and appealing, but without looking overly dopey, and blending elements of Eastern (the more continuous rather than segmented body, the eyebrow-whiskers) and Western (his limbs and bat-like wings) dragons. Sure, he’s a little… “bouyant” for something meant to fly through the sky, but Pokémon seems to play pretty fast-and-loose with what can and can’t fly, anyway.
The problem comes more from the fact Dragonite doesn’t seem to follow from Dragonair design-wise – his body shape is completely different, the two don’t share any coloration (horns and nails aside), their wings are in completely different places; overall, it just looks like the two belong to separate families. I suppose the designers wanted to cover all of their bases with the one true Dragon-type family they put into the game, but the family as a whole feels muddled. I might like Dragonite better as a one-off, or if he had a more roly-poly pre-evolution, but as-is this line is two great concepts that don’t really match, welded around the second joint.
Dragonite sets the pace for dragon-types (and pseudo-legendaries in general) by having great stats across the board, but having an absolutely crippling quadruple weakness to Ice and just okayish speed. He does have a passive ability that negates that Ice weakness somewhat, but it’s a pain to get – consider him a potent choice, but one that should be yanked immediately under certain circumstances.
Dragonite, being the only legitimate Dragon in the first generation, is everywhere from champion teams to merchandise to regular anime appearances – this is another very high-visibility Pokémon, and (as noted) one that kind of defines the Dragon-type.
In what is once again a lovely little marriage of lore and gameplay, Dratini was apparently considered mythical or even extinct up until recently (as of the games’ timeline), at which point small pockets of them were discovered. As a result, the only place you can catch them in the original games is as a rare find in the region’s protected nature reserve – or as a prize in what’s revealed to be something of a front for organized crime. Later games break this just a bit, but they still seem to be fairly choosy with where you can actually obtain a Dratini given their genuine rarity.
They also grow constantly and shed their skin appropriately, giving Dragonair and Dratini an appropriately serpentine character on top of their fishermen’s-tales air. Gotta love the attribution of real-animal qualities to fantasy zoology; it certainly helps ground the line in its way despite Dragonite looking something like a balloon.
Speaking of, while I’ll grant that Dragonite can float thanks to air sacs in that big belly it has or whatever other hand-wave they want to use, it’s still a really big pill to swallow that they can supposedly outspeed commercial aircraft. Not with that body, they don’t.
While the glowing orbs on Dragonair’s body feel like a generally-mythic trinket to attribute to a dragon (the mythical gemstone called draconite, dozens of role-playing games use orbs as MacGuffins, the literal Dragon Balls), one being placed about its neck feels like a very particular reference. In Tale of Princess Kaguya, the titular princess makes deliberately-impossible challenges to her suitors, notably claiming a colored jewel from the neck of a dragon. This isn’t referenced anywhere in Pokémon’s in-canon folklore, but with these monster being designed in Japan, this feels a bit too specific not to point out.
Those crystals around Dragonair’s neck and tail apparently contain energy that, released in the right way, can control the very weather around it. This sounds incredibly oral-tradition-y to me, and it’s worth noting that within the canon a Poliwhirl can control the weather if taught the right battle move – one that Dragonair doesn’t learn naturally, I’ll point out. Perhaps light catching and refracting off of those natural crystals gives Dragonair such an aura that people just attribute supernatural abilities to it that are, by the standards of the setting, not terribly unreasonable? A lot of the Pokédex entries back the idea up, even flatly stating “these are only rumors” in Dragonite’s entry in Yellow and its remakes.
Being a bringer of weather and its rarity do tie together quite nicely to make it symbol of good fortune and good health – you can imagine those in agriculture in particular being superstitious and making Dragonair offerings just in case it helps their crop yields. Dragonite only furthers this “good fortune” idea, being such an empath that it feels compelled to devote its time to performing ocean rescues of otherwise-doomed people and ships. That empathy comes with a reverse edge, though, as the reckless Outrage was its signature move for some time before other Pokémon co-opted it. Because of course the series would give its dragons the option to rampage about like a kaiju.
The best spotlight we have on Dragonite as a species came very recently, though – in an episode of the anime aired just a few months ago. To cut a long story short, we got some confirmation that evolved Dragonite primarily live in a single colony on a remote island (which they shelter individual victims they’ve rescued from storms), that the claims of its weather-control are at least partially founded in their knack for navigating stormy winds, and that Dragonair explicitly gain the ability to fly and evolve through empathy, ascribing it as a literal part of Dragonite’s power set.
You’d think that this would make Dragonite part-Psychic in a sense, being able to read and sync up with other creatures’ emotional state. The line is loaded up enough already with being Dragon/Flying, though – and it having literal wings wins out over its flavor text. It can’t really learn any Psychic-type moves outside of generic abilities like Rest and Agility, either, so this is just part of its flavor that doesn’t really manifest in game form, which is always a bit of a shame. It was probably for the best, though, since Dragon and Psychic were both massively overpowered in the first generation’s very broken power balance – loading both onto one creature would be nuts.
Dragonite is widely-recognizable, and so would be difficult to do away with entirely. Still, we’ve gotten stronger examples of the “dragon” concept since, and Dragonite has multiple hooks without completely committing to any of them. He’s well-textured, but not overly distinct as a Dragon, unfortunately; we should expect to see the series keep him in Reserve for regular-but-not-constant appearances going forward.
Any and all appreciation for Dratini, Dragonair, and Dragonite is welcome in the comments!