The wildly successful premiere of “House of the Dragon,” the prequel to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” was criticized by some viewers for being a bit too overly familiar. Anyone who felt that way about the origin story of the Targaryens is likely to have a similar response to Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” the streaming giant’s incredibly expensive tale of the early days of Middle-earth and the characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. “Rings” is so transparent in its desire to recreate what fans loved about the Peter Jackson-directed Oscar winners that the sense of mimicry could turn some people off. However, it feels more likely that even the haters will eventually respond to this mega-series like being reunited with an old friend, subconsciously (or even consciously) aware that the initial goodwill they feel toward the show has more to do with Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen than the new cast members but getting lost in the world of this show too much to care. “The Rings of Power” embraces its action/adventure origins, presenting epic fantasy storytelling in a way that not only shows its oversized budget but allows its world to feel expansive and deep, even if it sometimes feels like we already know our way around it.
“The Rings of Power” takes place thousands of years before “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” but the world of Middle-earth is still remarkably familiar, all the way down to the Howard Shore main theme (and Bear McCreary’s new score that echoes it) and cinematography/design elements meant to mirror the award-winning films. It’s not just the way that “TROP” looks—the story of “The Rings of Power” centers on at least two familiar characters, members of a species that can live for generations: elves. Remember the stately, elegant first voice heard in “The Fellowship of the Ring?” It belonged to Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, and the younger version of the same Elven warrior, now played by Morfydd Clark, tells the story of “The Rings of Power” in its opening scenes. Clark embodies a more combative, impulsive Galadriel, someone who has been traumatized by an epic war with Sauron that took her brother and changed the entire landscape of Middle-earth.
While Galadriel suspects that the calm currently in Middle-earth is merely the eye of a storm that will descend on them again, Elrond (Robert Aramayo, stepping into the shoes of Hugo Weaving) seems more hopeful that Sauron has been permanently defeated. Still, he trusts Galadriel’s instincts as she becomes increasingly concerned that something evil is brewing just over the horizon. His journey in the first two episodes takes him into the world of Dwarves, reuniting him with an old friend named Durin (Owain Arthur), this show’s version of John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli, right down to a similar sense of humor.
Elsewhere in Middle-earth, this story’s version of Frodo Baggins and his gang starts to emerge in the form of the Harfoots, a race of hobbits living quietly and peacefully off the land, even as they too start to suspect something has changed in the atmosphere. The central figure here is Nori (Markella Kavenaugh), the kind of wide-eyed explorer who wants to know what’s over the horizon before a life-changing development literally falls from the sky and into her life.
Who are the Aragorn and Legolas of this series? Well, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is a little bit of both, a charismatic Elven warrior who has barely-subdued romantic feelings for a human named Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), giving their arc a few intentional echoes of the Aragorn/Arwen romance. They too sense something evil in the air as Bronwyn brings some ominous developments in her region to Arondir’s attention.
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power,” which is all that Prime Video wants reviewed at this point, are designed not just to recall the characters of the “LOTR” films but the scope and epic power of the films as well. By now, everyone knows that Amazon has spent a fortune on these shows, committing close to $1 billion and devoting over $100 million per season in sheer budget—committing to at least five seasons from the jump. One can see the money on-screen from the very beginning. It’s clear that everyone involved here understood that one couldn’t tell this kind of epic story on a typical TV budget or it would have felt like a shadow of the films instead of being on the same tier in terms of craft. And so these two episodes pull out all the stops in terms of tech elements, scattering characters across Middle-earth in way that shows off the range of their design choices from a regal Elven city to a farmland community to a Dwarven underground society. It’s the most expensive show on TV and it looks like the most expensive show on TV.
Is all the spectacle in service of a story that will charm viewers the way characters like Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn did for generations? The problem is that it’s way too soon to tell as these first two episodes are all about introductions and world-building. After more than two hours of television, it feels like the story of “The Rings of Power” is really just getting its footing. The question for “The Rings of Power” has to be what happens after the familiarity wears off? Will fans take to these versions of Galadriel and Elrond the way they took to the original ones? Will Nori, Arondir, and Durin emerge from the shadows to become household names too?
There’s a reason for hope in that department thanks to sharp casting. Even with the set-up structure of these premiere episodes, it feels like there could be a couple of instant breakouts in Clark (also so good in “Saint Maud”) and Cordova (who some may recognize from “Ray Donovan”). They are both remarkably charismatic, holding their scenes like established movie stars. From top to bottom, it feels like the ensemble was carefully chosen, which could have been a fatal flaw of a lesser production, a show that prioritized only spectacle and forgot that the characters are going to be what keeps people coming back after they’ve gotten used to the scope.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been two decades since audiences fell in love with Hobbits again. Jackson’s films are now more like classics to a generation that grew up with them in the pop culture rearview mirror. And it’s fascinating that a return to Middle-earth won’t come in a new series of films for that generation but on a streaming service run by a corporate giant. Amazon has made it clear how much is riding on the success of this show, leaving the power in the hands of the viewers now. Don’t let it go to your head. [B]