Women drive half of the story threads of the latest version of “The Lord of the Rings,” and that’s a definite broadening of perspective for the Amazon-created origin story “The Rings of Power.”
But is it enough to answer that nagging question that hangs over every sequel, prequel or franchise reboot? “Why was this made, again?”
It’s familiar enough for even a casual fan to follow, a tale with beautiful elves and pan-ethnic humans and Irish-accented Harfoots (Harfeet?) of the Hobbit persuasion. And the dwarves are Scots, because of course they are.
It’s a good-looking series, if not a particularly cinematic take on the epic fairytale. That unmistakable generic “green screen” (fake backdrops) lighting bathes most characters in most interiors. The musical score rises to “adequate.” The forced-perspective that makes hobbits look hobbit-sized is underwhelming. And the exteriors — New Zealand or not — are fairly humdrum — mountains and digital cities seen from afar, impressive-enough tank-work for a storm at sea bit.
The dialogue has its pithy moments, and overall, I’d say the writing is canonical enough for the Tolkien crowd. Lots of solid dwarvish wisdom.
“Thair can be noooo troost between hammer and rock,” the wonderful Peter Mullan, as the dwarf king, intones. “Eventually, one of the other must surely break.”
But is this trip to Middle Earth sure to be a rewarding one, and worth eight hours of our while? For five years? That’s surprisingly hard to say, based on the first two episodes Amazon provides. The opening is a talky, backstory-and-exposition-heavy drag while the second installment finally gets around to giving us a little humor, bigger blasts of action and the latest cinematic incarnation of an orc.
We follow five basic story threads. Galadriel the evilish warrior princess, played by Morfydd Clark of “Saint Maude,” is on a quest to finish the Sauron-hunting job her brother began. Yes, pre-“Rings” Sauron was already a “cruel and cunning sorcerer” and on the lam. Perhaps in the frozen north?
The “politician” Elrond (Robert Aramayo) would like to guide his people to a different future, perhaps with the aid of the great smithy Celbrimbor (Charles Edwards). Some sort of negotiation with the dwarves is in order, if they can be reasoned with inside their mountain fastness.
The human Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi of “Homeland” and “How I Met Your Mother”) fell in love with an elf lieutenant Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova of “Mary Queen of Scots” and “Berlin Station”). But now, their borderlands village’s guardposts are being abandoned as “the long war is over” with the evil ones. Arondir’s leave-taking has him wondering if this is a good idea, and separately, he and Bronwyn and her curious son (Tyroe Muhafidin) are about to find out if he’s right.
The Harfoots — hunter-gatherer hobbits of a migratory sort — have long depended on the wisdom of Sadoc Burrows (Brit TV vet Lenny Henry). But when the curious Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and Mari (Sara Zwangobani) stumble into The Stranger (Daniel Weyman), a slow-to-speak “giant” (human) who fell out of a shooting star and a creature with particular skills, everybody’s on uncertain ground.
“The Lord of the Rings” made big stars out of a couple of actors, but a few players — Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler and even Sean Astin — came into it as pretty big names. That’s not where Amazon spent its money here, and that matters.
Because one thing that would help get this story on its feet quicker is star power — players who know how to use a close-up, strike a dramatic pose and make a story feel larger than life. Expecting everybody here to “grow into” the character is a reach, and a handicap in the early going. This is a generally colorless lot.
Boniadi impresses, Weyman’s Stranger intrigues. But truthfully, this enterprise doesn’t find its footing until it ventures underground with the bellowing, chiseling dwarves. Mullan, long a favorite among Scottish character actors (“Westworld,” “Tommy’s Honor,” “Hector”) lights up the series the moment he shows up, and Owain Arthur makes his mark as King Durin’s bearded blustery son.
It’s one thing to give Galadriel the most agency. But one can only hope Clark develops some swagger as the series progresses. It’s helpful to remember that Elrond is her cousin, because lowering our expectations of what their shared scenes portend is a must. Aramayo (“The King’s Man”) comes off awfully bland in the early going.
What’s left is pointlessly humorless and self-serious without stakes.
Let’s hope the whole enterprise gets better as the story reaches the middle acts and makes its turn towards the finish. Because I have to say, “Rings of Power” does not overwhelm, dazzle or sprint out of the gate.
Rating: TV-14, violence,
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Nazanin Boniadi, Ismael Cruz Cordoba, Robert Aramayo, Markella Kavenagh, Daniel Weyman and Peter Mullan
Credits: Created by Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. An Amazon Prime release.
Running time: Eight episodes @1:00 each.