“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is only days away, and the Amazon Prime Video series has earned mostly rave reviews with a few mixed reactions (and one flat-out pan) as critics returned to Middle-earth.
As Variety chief TV critic Caroline Framke wrote in her review: “It’s safe to say that Amazon throwing the weight of its coffers at this property has resulted in a perfectly winning adaptation that unfolds swashbuckling adventures with clear reverence and affection for the considerable mythos behind it.”
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Set during the Second Age of Middle-earth (thousands of years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Hobbit”), the prequel series reintroduces characters from Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, including a young Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo). The Second Age consists of the rise and fall of Númenor, the creation of the Rings of Power and the formation of the Last Alliance.
Along with Clark and Aramayo, “The Rings of Power” cast includes Owain Arthur, Nazanin Boniadi, Tom Budge, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Ema Horvath, Markella Kavenagh, Joseph Mawle, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers and Daniel Weyman.
While some critics questioned whether the prequel series was worth the exorbitant price tag, most agree that “Rings of Power” is a breathtaking spectacle that deserves to be viewed on the big screen.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premieres Sept. 2 on Amazon Prime Video. Read what critics are saying below.
From this prelude onward, “The Rings of Power” narrative adopts a solemn and awestruck approach that feels in line with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson’s scripts, even if the direction — by J.A. Bayona and Wayne Che Yip in initial episodes, with Charlotte Brändström to follow in ones to come — is more serviceably sweeping than specific. As for production value, it’s not exactly surprising that the physical world-building and glittering, armored costumes rate so high given the show’s astronomical price tag, but it’s still refreshing to escape into an alternate world that feels more tangibly real than it does CGI creation. When the action does require a visual effect — for, say, an enormous, undulating sea monster creeping underneath a splintering raft — clearly no expense was spared in making it ring true and palpably ominous. (Though if you’re wondering whether “The Rings of Power” might be a friendlier option to watch with your kids than the unabashedly violent “House of the Dragon,” the answer is “Yes, as long as they can handle war and/or the occasional orc jump scare.”)
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” flutters to life in bursts, offering reason enough to believe, with time to play out its own story and optimize its own strengths, the Prime Video creation could leave its own gleaming mark on J.R.R. Tolkien’s still-expanding universe. Genuine chemistry draws sparks of humor and heartache. Sizable set pieces house indisputably epic battles. And yes, the grandeur on display is almost too much — all those soaring shots of fantastical cities and glistening scenery routine enough to feel, well, routine. Still, the stately show’s main hurdle is the same faced by many of the streaming era’s ambitious sequels, prequels, and spin-offs: over-familiarity absent any real risk. Investing a boatload of cash isn’t the same as investing beliefs, predilections, and sense of humanity. It’s rather simple to satisfy the masses with a nostalgic game of connect the dots; it’s much harder to forge a ring of one’s own worth admiring.
There are ways to do a prequel, and “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” does them all wrong. It takes six or seven things everyone remembers from the famous movie trilogy, adds a water tank, makes nobody fun, teases mysteries that aren’t mysteries, and sends the best character on a pointless detour. The latter is uber-elf Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) who spends the premiere telling people to worry about Sauron. In response, people tell her not to worry about Sauron. That’s one hour down, seven to go this season. Sound like a billion dollars yet?
Viewers hungry for Middle-Earth Anything could be satisfied, and I guess you could argue “Rings of Power” is no worse than all the other expensively empty genre adventures (“Altered Carbon,” anyone?) that have proliferated through the streaming era. But this series is a special catastrophe of ruined potential, sacrificing a glorious universe’s limitless possibilities at the altar of tried-and-true blockbuster desperation.
The scale of “Rings of Power” — developed by untested writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay — would feel empty without compelling characters at the middle of those lush pictures. Fortunately, the show has a promising collection of those, first and foremost its more aggro Galadriel. No matter what kind of grand landscapes or horrible creatures she is placed in front of, Clark’s fiercely still performance ensures she is always what you are looking at first. And she sparks well opposite Charlie Vickers as Halbrand, a roguish mystery man she encounters on the high seas. Arondir is on the bland side despite Córdova’s strong physical presence, but the tension Nori feels between modest Harfoot tradition and her desire for something grander is an endearing hero’s journey.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (Prime Video) is likely to prove divisive, not least depending on whether you watch it on a big TV or squint at its splendour on a phone or laptop. It is so rich and gorgeous that it is easy to spend the first episode simply gawping at the landscapes, as it swoops and swooshes between the lands of elves and dwarves, humans and harfoots. This is TV that is made for big screens, although surely destined to be watched on smaller ones. It is so cinematic and grand that it makes “House of the Dragon” look as if it has been cobbled together on Minecraft.
The whole kit and caboodle is simply too big to be a failure. The story is expansive enough to fill up the show’s huge map, and where its fantasy premises promise impressive set pieces, like a battle with an ice troll or ships sailing into the Undying Lands, ‘The Rings of Power’ lives up to those promises. Its emotional core, though simplistic, is just as big and openhearted. It is a forthrightly sincere show, with no room for cynicism. Everything is about Friendship or Honor or Greed or Strength, and it’d be so easy for it all to read as completely goofy if it were not utterly committed to that sincerity in every single beat. Even if that kind of unflinching earnestness isn’t to your taste, it’s impossible to say the show doesn’t achieve the emotional and tonal palette it set out to create.
Through two episodes made available for critics, “The Rings of Power” works far better than the three-year publicity build-up led me to fear. The first episode is dedicated primarily to world-building, exposition and proving that storytelling on this scale can be executed for television and generally succeeds, even if some of that exposition lags. Then in the second episode, the story starts to actually move along and there are characters and scenes that I found utterly charming in the way a show like this requires for long-term survival, even if some of the effects and epic scale diminish a tiny bit. It’s technically impressive, reasonably ambitious, packed with Easter eggs that I’m certain I’m not versed enough to get and, with my interest in different plotlines already varying wildly, it could fall off a precarious cliff at any moment.
Galadriel’s warrior spirit and ingenuity are evident from the moment she’s introduced, but it isn’t until her immediate family is touched by death personally that she’s given the freedom to take up arms herself and join the fight against Morgoth’s well-known successor, Sauron. As it’s condensing significant chunks of Tolkien’s lore into a compact montage in its first episode, “The Rings of Power” initially feels like it might be the sort of show that isn’t quite sure where it wants to focus or what ideas it wants you to keep at the forefront of your mind. But the pace the show moves with as it’s setting its stage actually works as a very effective way of illustrating how elves experience and perceive time very differently than other races who aren’t as long-lived.
If you are a big Tolkien fan, it’s incredible to see some of these events play out, even in quick flashes. If you’re not, though, the rapid-fire backstory montage and some of the following expository dialogue don’t initially give you much reason to care about these characters, their wars, and this world’s politics as it bounces from various elves, humans, and Harfoots. Despite how beautiful it all is, and how exciting it was to see this era brought to life in such painstaking detail, after the first episode I had some concern that ‘The Rings of Power’ would become mired in its explanations of the world instead of showing it to us, immersing us in it. The second episode, however, left those fears in the dust.
It’s just a shame that the visual poetry and willingness to take risks in moments such as these aren’t more prevalent in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s” first two episodes. For the most part, Payne and McKay follow the Tolkien playbook to the letter, fashioning the story primarily from tried and true Middle-earth tropes such as solemn council sessions, moody dungeon crawling, and folksy pastoral hijinks. Admittedly, these are all ingredients the show was bound to include, if for no other reason than that fans are expecting to see them. But they’re so conceptually safe rather than daring, and executionally pedestrian rather than poetic, that it’s hard for us to get too excited.
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” occupy an awkward space where it’s not yet apparent if either of these approaches apply to it – its characters have not yet revealed themselves as complex, while it’s too early to tell if it will rebottle the catharsis of Tolkien’s work or Peter Jackson’s movies. Yet what does make it work so far is what made ‘The Lord of the Rings’ work: the earnestness of its performances, and the sincerity of its writing. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay may have come from nowhere to develop “The Rings of Power,” but they display a deft understanding of Tolkien’s soothing rhythms, his grandeur and musicality. It’s a pleasure to hear the characters talk.
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