Review by C.J. Bunce
Prime Video’s much-anticipated, record-setting big-budget, eight-episode series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power has arrived with not just one but two episodes available for its opening weekend. Impossible not to compare and contrast with Peter Jackson’s six films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and its characters, the most striking difference is the deliberate, steady pace of this new story. Carefully introducing lead character Galadriel and using two entire episodes to build the first trilogy character’s backstory, the quick pacing of the movies is only echoed by distant Hobbit relation the Harfoots, who are every bit as spunky as the Bagginses of Bag-end. Future Elf-king Elrond firmly establishes stoic Elfdom literally thousands of years before The Hobbit, and viewers meet a Dwarf who would make Gimli proud many generations later. But the best of the series may be its characters new to those who know only the players in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The series requires a few things from the viewer. First, forget about the movies. This looks like a television series, with production values that might measure up to some films, but not Jackson’s masterpieces. From costume details to the cinematography and set pieces, it’s obvious the tens of thousands of artisans and craftspeople who made Jackson’s movies weren’t used here. So adjust expectations accordingly. What has been billed as the most expensive series ever made still makes for an attractive television show that rises above nearly all of its competition. Second, the series beats mirror the movie beats. This is both good and bad, reminding the viewer of what they know, and also hinting that maybe there’s not much a lot more that needs to be told. Getting past that will be one of the challenges of forthcoming episodes.
Both the films and TV series open with an historic battle many years ago, the series’ imagery less elaborate. Both follow one “hero’s journey,” but here we’ve no Samwise Gamgee to tell us why we should love Galadriel and follow her as we did Frodo and Bilbo. Both stories enlist wide-eyed Hobbits, stern royal Elves, angry feisty Dwarves, and humans caught in the mix. The “touring by map” and the names and races and creatures like Orcs aren’t explained for that viewer who isn’t already familiar with the series. But does that matter, and will they even show up to watch? Even those who know the main Tolkien books may not be familiar with Tolkien’s “appendices” on which The Rings of Power is derived, set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, an Age before The Hobbit. What is on the screen is a different–yet attractive–look at New Zealand converted into a giant, layered fantasy world. But there’s a lot of new content, players and places to digest.
What The Rings of Power doesn’t have makes it very promising. You won’t find here the sex, nudity, boring royalty politics, and the senseless violence of some other fantasy TV efforts. The first two episodes achieve their objective: they build some good drama to bring viewers back for episode three.
Morfydd Clark (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, His Dark Materials) is a bit stuck as a one-note lead heroine with her young Galadriel, who is much like Luke Skywalker and Paul Atreides of those other fantasy worlds–she’s singularly determined and focused. But she’s just getting started. Robert Aramyo (The King’s Man) has more by way of intrigue to do upfront as young half-Elf Elrond, scheming with a famous blacksmith and challenging a Dwarf, improving our view of the bland Elf leader he becomes much later. Like the shark in Jaws, Sauron may be even more compelling, a force of darkness completely out of the characters’ and viewers’ sights (or is he?). For those who know the novels, the appearance of a certain broken sword prop introduces a jolt of something electric to this story.
The new characters–and actors behind them–more than carry their weight. Ismael Cruz Cordova (The Mandalorian, Sesame Street) is as compelling as any of the movie Elves as Arondir, here in detective mode, and his love interest Bronwyn, played by Nazinin Boniadi, has that same fire and strength Boniadi brought to Counterpart. We won’t need a romantic parallel for Galadriel in the vein of Aragorn and Arwen if theirs is to be the romance of the series. Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (played by Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Gloaming’s brilliant Markella Kavanaugh) is like a bubbling kettle of all four of the Hobbits from the movies as she gets in and out of trouble and comes upon a mysterious visitor in a place she is not supposed to be.
More expected in the series are brief scenes featuring what feels like a typical Elf leader via Benjamin Walker (Jessica Jones) as Gil-galad and a typical hairy Dwarf, played by Owain Arthur (Hinterland), who is the single actor of the series you’d swear played a Dwarf in one of the movies. But just for fun or fan service it would have been great to see Dwarf women sporting beards and indistinguishable from the Dwarf men, as joked by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. As for makeups and prosthetics, the team of creators–which actually includes artisans from Weta Workshop–have re-created the vile Orcs from the films perfectly. Also, the dialogue and linguist experts have adapted something seamless for Middle-earth with the handling of the proto-Elf language, translated for viewers via sub-titles (Tolkien was, of course a master of language). Some serious effort was given to mirroring real-world war issues visually and story-wise of the era between World War I and World War II, despite Tolkien’s proclamations parallels to those years weren’t intended. The Roman Britain centurion overlord vibe of Arondir is also a nice touch, and other visual cues telegraph a Hitler-level menace is festering among the players. As for special effects, a brief dragon attack scene may be the high point of the first two episodes. Bigger event scenes are no doubt coming in later episodes.
What’s missing? A Wizard, of course! But we’ll need to wait and see if we’ll get one this season or in later seasons.
So give creators Patrick McKay and John D. Payne a hand for creating something unexpected and fresh, even if it’s not what you may expect, and even if it’s not as giant and epic as Peter Jackson’s films. It holds promise to be among the top of TV’s fantasy efforts, maybe even approaching the magic of the most fantastical of them all, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance.
We’re only two episodes in. The remaining six episodes of the first season of The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power arrive each Thursday, only on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming platform.