They dwell in utterly different worlds. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” spinoff, ”House of the Dragon,” is the one with beautifully candlelit buttocks and a steady supply of spilled entrails. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is the other one.
Premiering Thursday night on Amazon, “The Rings of Power” wields a different, family-friendlier set of selling points, though there is a dragon overlap. And in its first five minutes “The Rings of Power” does manage to shoot an arrow into someone’s mouth. For all the obvious contrasts, though, these two streaming fantasy prequels chase the same quarry. They’re after more of the same of whatever worked the first time, but a different sort of same.
“The Rings of Power” gets off to a promising, lavishly outfitted start in the first two episodes made available for review. Guessing here, but I think just enough of the flashy stuff seen in the trailer shows up in the early going to keep casual or less committed Middle-earthlings on the hook for a while. The rabid fans were going to watch anyway. The questions for Amazon: Will their kids watch, too? And can “The Rings of Power” in its chosen weight class turn into a water cooler phenomenon, the way “House of the Dragon” has, even in our post-water cooler age?
The series represents Amazon’s quest for the holy grail of a prestigious yet populist streaming hit, working off pricey IP. Jeff Bezos, a J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiast, paid $250 million for the adaptation rights alone — not derived from a book or three, but from various Tolkien “appendices” and narrative threads “inspired by, though not contained in, the original source material,” as the end credits phrase it.
The eight-episode first season of “The Rings of Power” (just two were made available for preview) takes place many thousands of years prior to “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” in the Second Age of Middle-earth and environs. It may be peacetime, and New Zealand, as always, looks lovely both in fantasy peace and fantasy war, all dressed up with the usual, clinically wondrous digital landscapes. But the Dark Lord Sauron lurks somewhere across the Sundering Seas, and he’s shaping up as a strong second-term prospect for an all-powerful reign of terror.
The initial table-setting “Rings of Power” episodes focus on the elven warrior commander Galadriel (Morfydd Clark, playing the younger version of the character Cate Blanchett handled in the Peter Jackson “LOTR” trilogy). She’s one of 22 characters jostling for their share of screen time in the kingdoms of elves, humans, dwarves, orcs and the rest of the Tolkien universe.
With so many storylines on the burner, “The Rings of Power” makes a strategically wise decision to focus the early going on Galadriel as she braves the seas various and Sundering (excellent digital effects here), makes an uneasy truce with a human castaway (Charlie Vickers), and sets a course for adventure, without which, no story.
As with Galadriel, many other characters link back directly or indirectly to those we know from the Jackson trilogy. Much like Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen’s heavily discouraged elven/human love story in “LOTR,” in “The Rings of Power” the Sylvan elf Arondir falls in love with the human healer Bronwyn, a single mother whose son is tempted by the forces of darkness. Arondir and Bronwyn, two “noncanonical” newbies created for the show, are played with quiet force by Ismael Cruz Córdova and Nazanin Boniadi. While the introduction of elves of color has already exploded the heads of some “LOTR” purists, whatever. Those people can make their own “Lord of the Rings” prequel.
Working with showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, director J.A. Bayona shoots in a style approximating “Lord of the Rings” director Jackson’s endless, pivoting camera glides. Visually the series stalls a bit when setting up the less-than-enthralling elven kingdom doings of young half-elf Elrond (Robert Aramayo here, playing the prequel version of the Hugo Weaving role in “LOTR”). Much goes on simultaneously in “The Rings of Power,” including underground rock-crushing contests and the aboveground crash landing of a mysterious interstellar visitor.
The overriding plot in this roiling sea of little plots is right there in the title: Twenty rings will be fashioned, eventually, in master elven architect Celebrimbor’s dream of a forge “able to birth a flame as hot as a dragon’s tongue and as pure as starlight.” Hearing a classically trained actor such as Charles Edwards wrap his vowels around a description like that, well, it’s something many “LOTR” enthusiasts have been missing for a long time now.
At one point, Celebrimbor wonders if his life’s work will ever “grow beyond petty works of jeweled craft — and devise something of real power.” The same question looms over Amazon’s series. For now, it’s nice for our streaming pile of fantasy destination vacations to include a noble corrective to the assaultive depravities of “House of the Dragon.” The HBO phenom had zero trouble making the stakes and power dynamics clear in its debut episode, because it’s well-made, the actors sell it and the narrative is ridiculously simple.
It may take a while for “The Rings of Power” to sort itself out, by contrast, and get the forge fired up. But so far, pretty good.