‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Premiere Review: An Ambitious Work in Progress

The new series boasts some of the best visuals on television, but its sprawling ensemble story proves that not all arcs are created equal.

A ceremony celebrating Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) put on by High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Courtesy of Prime Video

Before this review formally gets underway, let it be known that you would be doing yourself a massive favor by watching The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on the biggest screen you can find. Don’t just play it on your laptop, and Gandalf forbid you watch it on your phone, because the new series is perhaps the biggest spectacle television has ever seen. From a sprawling underground dwarf palace to the rolling hills of the hobbity harfoots, everything in The Rings of Power has been carefully chosen and crafted to be every bit of the feast for the eyes that Amazon Prime’s $462 million budget has promised.

The show is a visual stunner, plain and simple, but sometimes it prioritizes this splendor over storytelling. The two-episode premiere introduces dozens of characters across a range of different locations and species, and though some are instantly, inherently watchable, other storylines struggle to get off on the right foot.

The series begins with a prolonged backstory sequence for the elven Galadriel (Morfydd Clark, who rises to the task of playing the same role as Cate Blanchett), going from a childhood flashback to a dense dump of exposition, all done via narration. The introduction is curiously similar to the start of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but whereas that sequence worked as a mythical prologue to an epic adventure film, this one feels stilted; such a narrative device plays differently in a three-hour movie than in what is essentially a pilot episode, and condensing Galadriel’s centuries-long personal history into a few minutes does little to actually ground the character.

Galadriel is ostensibly this series’ knight in shining armor, a sword and dagger wielding soldier hardened by the death of her beloved brother. She believes that the evil responsible for his death, and that of countless other elves, still lurks in Middle Earth, but she’s just about the only one of her kind willing to keep up the pursuit of orcs and the cursed Sauron. Her drive is singular and unwavering, as shown in a pivotal moment at the close of the first episode, but she ends up being one of the less compelling characters of the series so far. Compared to elves like the wily Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who has a fascinating relationship both with his brethren and rowdy dwarf prince Durin (Owain Arthur), Galadriel and all of her intensity come off as one-note.

Dwarf Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

The dwarf prince and his kind do wait until episode two to make their entrance, but what an entrance it is. The series takes place when the underground city of Khazad-dum was in its heyday, made up of a massive series of tunnels, platforms, and a shocking amount of plant life. The set (and/or the digital effects; it was magnificently difficult to tell where the physical ended and the computer-generated began) is genuinely jaw-dropping in its intricacy. Prince Durin is an immediately exciting character, harboring deep secrets and petty grudges alike, but somehow he’s only half the scene stealer that his wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete) is. Thus far, the show promises to be a fascinating exploration and excavation of all things dwarf.

As for the realm of man, things start off a bit more self-serious. There are several human characters and clans that span across Middle Earth, from the strapping and shipwrecked Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) to the homebound healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi). Bronwyn finds herself the center of village intrigue, what with her interest in the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a patrolling soldier who has more of an affinity for mankind than most of his brethren, and her moody son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin). Her home is the first to face the long-suppressed evil creatures of Middle Earth, and director J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The Impossible) makes interesting – if not entirely tonally appropriate – choices of how to depict the horror of the orcs.

That said, there are plenty of other moments and characters that capture the spirit of magic and adventure inherent to Tolkien’s world. A nomadic tribe of harfoots (precursors to the hobbits and their shires) provides the first two episodes with a truly lovely sense of wonder. Young Eleanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) cannot fathom the harfoot tradition of staying meek and hidden away from the rest of the world, so when a mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) falls from the sky, she can’t resist getting involved.

Is it fair, artistically speaking, to judge the merits of The Rings of Power by how the series compares to Peter Jackson’s original trilogy? Not particularly. But as young Nori interacts with the stranger and goes against every rule she’s ever been taught by helping him, the show conjures up the same warmth as Samwise’s insistent friendship or Aragorn’s undying loyalty; this emphasis on goodness and kindness has always been one of The Lord of the Rings’ greatest strengths, and the series understands that here – hopefully the rest of the season will too. ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Premiere Review: An Ambitious Work in Progress