Opinion

What critics are saying about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

Good news, Amazon: You shall earn passing marks from critics with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. 

This may be the most crucial week in the history of Amazon Prime Video, as the streamer's highly anticipated series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is about to debut. Set thousands of years before Frodo trekked to Mount Doom, the series is based primarily on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings appendices, mixing familiar characters with new ones invented for TV. It's a massive bet for Amazon, which bought the rights from the Tolkien estate for $250 million — and the first season cost around $465 million

So will that bet pay off? Reviews were only based on the first two episodes, so it may be too soon to say for sure. But thus far, critics are mostly liking what they're seeing. 

So it begins

Any doubts that The Rings of Power's massive budget would be used wisely are put to rest in its debut episode, which dazzles viewers with breathtaking visuals almost immediately. 

"All of that Amazon money is very much up there on the screen," writes Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall, who praised the show for offering "one stunning image after another." Indeed, it boasts visual effects "sharper than most movies," BBC's Stephen Kelly says, and Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk writes the show feels "nearly as huge as its price tag." 

The jaw-dropping visuals begin with a gorgeous look at Valinor, the Undying Lands where the Elves reside, and continue all the way through an impressively tense horror sequence in the second episode shot like something out of an Insidious movie. 

That being said, some critics noted they were gobsmacked over how incredible the show looked when watching the episodes in a movie theater, but it didn't have quite the same impact at home. "Rewatching the episodes on a smaller screen," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg, "my mind absolutely began wandering almost every time anybody conversed for more than a minute at a time."

The time given to us

The Rings of Power's first episode largely revolves around Galadriel, the Elf played by Cate Blanchett in the Lord of the Rings movies, and centering around her was a wise move that helps establish clear, relatable stakes. Morfydd Clark delivers a strong performance as Galadriel, and Variety's Caroline Framke praised her "arresting gravitas." After the end of the First Age of Middle-earth, the Dark Lord Morgoth has been defeated following a long war with the Elves. But Galadriel suspects his servant, Sauron, is still out there somewhere, even though everyone around her insists the war is over and he won't return. Yeah, about that... 

This is all laid out in a Fellowship of the Ring-style opening narration that kicks things off. Some critics felt this first episode goes a bit too heavy on that kind of exposition to get viewers up to speed, though episode two slows down with more focus on the characters. "After the first episode I had some concern that The Rings of Power would become mired in its explanations of the world instead of showing it to us, immersing us in it," IGN's Alex Stedman said. "The second episode, however, left those fears in the dust."

Other critics had more of an issue with the show's pacing, with CNN's Brian Lowry saying the "buildup toward the meat of the story grinds slowly" and it lacks "narrative urgency," while The Atlantic's David Sims said the first two episodes make you feel like you've "barely begun an appetizer course." Sauron is presented as just a vague threat whose location is unknown early on, and it will be a while before the Rings of Power themselves are forged. 

The world hasn't changed

Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, isn't involved with The Rings of Power, but the early episodes still do a surprisingly good job evoking his movies — for better or worse. 

On the one hand, Vanity Fair's Esther Zuckerman writes that the show "really feels like Lord of the Rings," successfully capturing the "mystical poetry of this specific universe." The dialogue, which The Wrap's Joelle Monique notes feels "deliciously poetic and descriptive, yet accessible when performed with such conviction," is also appropriately Tolkienesque. 

Plus, anyone concerned that Howard Shore didn't return to compose the score (beyond the opening theme) will be happy to hear Bear McCreary's music received widespread praise. Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming a few of the motifs as the credits roll. 

At the same time, Jackson's trilogy is such a high bar to meet that IndieWire's Ben Travers argues moments when the show echoes them only "undermine the series' own often-well-realized ambitions," and RogerEbert.com's Clint Worthington says it sometimes feels like a "store-brand version" of the Jackson movies. Since we've "seen it all before, and frankly, seen it done better, too," Polygon's Leon Miller wondered why the show isn't "diving into some other, unexplored corner of Middle-earth lore instead," while The Ringer's Alison Herman said the series is "reluctant to trust the audience with anything that strays too far from what they already know." 

Other critics disagreed, with Gizmodo's James Whitbrook arguing that "for all those familiarities these stories don't feel like rehashes," and Consequence's Liz Shannon Miller said it "manages to put a fresh coat of paint on what came before."

There and back again 

The Rings of Power may be lacking in Hobbits, but it has the next best thing: the Hobbits' ancestors, the Harfoots. The first two episodes introduce a young Harfoot, Nori (Markella Kavenagh), our Frodo of this story. She yearns for adventure and gets her wish when a mysterious man falls from the sky. 

Other other central characters include Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an Elf tasked with watching over humans because their ancestors allied with Morgoth, and Elrond (Robert Aramayo), the half-Elf played by Hugo Weaving in the Peter Jackson trilogy. Many of The Rings of Power's characters, including Nori and Arondir, were created for the show and aren't in the books or movies. Still, The Verge's Charles Pulliam-Moore notes "you can see shades of the personality types and relationship dynamics that made fans fall in love with this world." 

The Rings of Power, of course, is coming less than two weeks after the premiere of House of the Dragon. But the large scope is one advantage it may have over the Game of Thrones prequel, which so far is relatively contained and centers around a single central storyline. The Rings of Power, on the other hand, is constantly jumping around the map like Game of Thrones was known to do. And in terms of visuals, The Guardian's Rebecca Nicholson goes as far as to say The Rings of Power "makes House of the Dragon look as if it has been cobbled together on Minecraft."

It remains to be seen which series will be the bigger hit. But based on these dazzling early episodes, perhaps there really is room for two epic fantasy shows to rule them all.  

The Rings of Power's first two episodes will hit Prime Video in the U.S. on Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. 

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