But you already know what I do: If it only took money to create the next fantasy monoculture phenomenon, it would have happened by now.
Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” comes 21 years after the first film in Peter Jackson’s theatrical trilogy — and less than two weeks after HBO’s own attempt to restore the goodwill “Game of Thrones” left behind by its prequel series, “House of the Dragon.” As the Westeros drama portrays its mother show’s penchant for shock, pulp, and gore, Middle-earth plays saga, in line with Jackson’s adaptations, is much more family-friendly. While the eight-part debut season portends an impending war between Elves and Orcs—with dwarves, humans, and a forerunner of the Hobbit race called the Harfoots in the mix—the bountiful and jerkily edited action in the first two episodes (which has been screened for critics) is bloodless and computer controlled. The defining influence is not the epic scale of “Game of Thrones”, but the castration of Marvel. If the production design wasn’t so spectacular (and the characters and settings bought up by Amazon), “The Rings of Power” wouldn’t look so out of place on Disney Plus.
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To be fair, the Lord of the Rings franchise was meant for all ages. But it’s not clear who “The Rings of Power” is for. Based largely on the attachments – the attachments! – after the novel “The Lord of the Rings”, it takes place some 3000 years before the events of that book. Green-lighted for five seasons (with a possible spin-off in the works), inexperienced showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, who have only uncredited writing work on “Star Trek Beyond” to their credit on IMDb, have said that their goal is to make “a 50-hour show” of material covered in just a few minutes in Jackson’s movies. In total, the budget of the series is expected to exceed $1 billion. That should be pretty easy to top: The first season alone cost $465 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and that’s not counting the initial cash to secure the IP.
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So far I’ve focused this review more on the development of “The Rings of Power” than the content, because so little stands out in the actual show. The characters – including Elves Galadriel and Elrond, played by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving in the films – are thin phyllo dough, and the plot isn’t much more substantial. This younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) has been banished from her childhood home of Valinor by a centuries-long war that claimed her older brother. (Outside of combat, Elves tend to live forever.)
There’s also a dashing young Harfoot in search of adventure named Nori (Markella Kavenagh) – an anomaly in her insular, nomadic community – so archetypal might as well be her chorus: “I want to be where the people are, there must be more than this provincial life!” She soon gets her wish when a sick stranger (Daniel Weyman) – tall and angular in face – is found nearby, amnesiac and heavily implied as the story’s antagonist.
Many miles away, a human healer, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), and an Elven sentry, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), engage in a likely doomed cross-species fling. Elrond (Robert Aramayo), a member of the Elf King’s court, has his own challenges in befriending the Dwarf Prince Durin (Owain Arthur), who could prove a vital ally in battle against the orcs. Despite Jackson’s claim that the “Rings of Power” creative team haunted him, they borrow from and build on the character designs, fairytale aesthetics, and musical landscape he created for the films. (Expect singing – lots of it.)
“The Rings of Power” looks set to dazzle Tolkien fans with soaring sights of exotic lands they may not have seen before: Middle-earth, of course, but also Valinor, a sacred land where the Immortals dwell, and the kingdom from the island of Númenor, whose fall is written in the books. (Like Jackson’s films, the series was shot in New Zealand.) But for audiences not yet invested in the comings and goings of the pointy ears, the series doesn’t offer much to worry about.
The performances are usable but unobtrusive, while the dialogue is very corny and unartistic, with too many intoned monologues about the search for ‘the light’ or the ever-vague nature of evil. The fate of many worlds is at stake, but the uninspired opulence on the screen only sparks visions in the imagination bills going up in smoke. Rarely has danger felt so dull.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power debuts with two episodes Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes are streamed weekly on Fridays.