It’s good to be back in Middle Earth. And yes, it does really feel like Middle Earth.
Here are a few things you may have heard about Amazon Prime Video’s much-ballyhooed adaptation of material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal “The Lord of the Rings” books: The show isn’t really about the hobbits you know and love; it doesn't involve Peter Jackson, who directed the films; and it cost an astronomical amount of money.
All those things are true. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (two episodes Thursday, then weekly on Fridays, ★★★ out of four) is inspired by a small amount of appendix material Tolkien wrote. Frodo and friends are nowhere to be found, because it's set 4,000 years before their arrival. And estimates put the cost somewhere around half a billion dollars.
But there is more to "Rings of Power" than its internet reputation – much more. Novice producers and creators J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay have created something that looks, sounds and smells like the "Lord of the Rings" we know and love. The somewhat flawed series can't yet touch those impeccable films, but it scratches the surface. And if nothing else, the gorgeously rendered "Rings" is the most transportive current series on TV.
One of the primary questions anyone approaching "Rings" might have is what story, exactly, the Amazon series is telling. Simply put, it's the story of Middle Earth's "Second Age," the time period that led to the creation of the rings of power and the rise of big bad Sauron. Ancient elves like Galadriel (Morfydd Clark here, Cate Blanchett in the Jackson films) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo, and Hugo Weaving in the films) are young whippersnappers (only a few thousand years old) compared with their movie versions.
The series does a good job laying all this out. The first episode has a lot of narration that quickly covers Middle Earth's first age (chronicled in Tolkien's encyclopedia-like book "The Silmarillion," which Amazon does not have the rights to adapt) and explains why people are worried about Sauron bringing evil to Middle Earth. In addition to the elvish stories, it follows the goings-on of the dwarves; men in the shabby Southlands; men in the advanced island of Númenor; and the Hobbit-like Harfoots, a migratory barefooted people with curly hair.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power': How to watch the series
There are 20 or so major characters to keep track of, but many fantasy fans are quite used to location-jumping series with huge casts. There are, however, moments when the sheer scope of the story can be overwhelming and confusing, when characters act without much reasoning or when clunky exposition gets in the way of a scene.
Most of the actors are a delight, particularly Ismael Cruz Córdova as elf Arondir, in forbidden love with a human (Nazanin Boniadi); and the actors playing dwarf royalty Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and his wife, Princess Disa (Sophia Nomvete). Unfortunately, Clark and Aramayo are woefully miscast as Galadriel and Elrond, possessing neither the magnetism and imperiousness nor the great height elves require.
The real star, however, is Middle Earth, Númenor and all the other locations that the series brings to life. Jackson famously used the unique terrain of New Zealand to film his six movies, and the show was shot there as well. But technology has advanced to a degree that makes this version of Tolkien's world feel gargantuan. Every frame is packed with detail, and there is a magical quality to the cinematography. I feel a pang of regret that most people will see "Rings" on small screens, because it is a feast for the eyes.
It's important to address the elephant – or rather, dragon – in the room. Amazon pursued "Rings" in part as a response to the success of HBO's "Game of Thrones." In the time it took to get "Rings" on the screen, "Thrones" ended and sparked its own spinoff, the prequel "House of the Dragon," which premiered Aug. 21.
The rival fantasy series will be brought up in the same breath ad nauseam, but they are such diametrically opposed series it's really not fair to compare them. "Dragon" is a story of the politics of one country, "Rings" is about a threat to the entire world. "Dragon" is about a battle within one family; "Rings" is about the battle between good and evil.
There's something in each that you can't get from the other, and in particular I am attracted to the rigid sense of right and wrong "Rings" espouses. In the troubling, complicated times we live in, there is refuge in Tolkien's world, where the bad guys are monsters who snarl and literally burn in the light of day (the series deserves immense credit for making its orcs genuinely frightening). That's not to say "Rings" lacks complexity or moral quandaries, but rather that it doesn't live exclusively in those gray areas the way "Dragon" does.
As someone who has seen the Jackson films a dozen or so times, I might be just the right sucker to fall for Amazon's take on Tolkien. Where "Rings of Power" really succeeds for me is in reminding me why I love the author's work in the first place. It whisks me away to Middle Earth, and I'm delighted to be there.
And isn't that really the point of fantasy?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' review: Amazon got it right