Rating out of 5:
Sometimes mediocre books make the best films or television series; content can be altered to fit the screen with less fan outrage, viewers compare the product to a different standard, script writers and actors have a little more wiggle room. Sadly, this is not the case with MTV’s new The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks’s decidedly mediocre, if generally good-natured, Shannara series (now at book 26, with at least four volumes to go). Instead, prepare for an over-funded, under-scripted disappointment.
The plot, such as it is, is based on the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara. We follow a bratty elven princess (Poppy Drayton), an inert lump of a half-elven savior (Austin Butler), and an entirely forgettable Rover (or wandering bandit) girl (Ivana Baquero) as they quest to save a magic tree before an army of demons can be unleashed. Along the way, virtually every bad Dungeons and Dragons campaign cliché is unleashed upon the audience.
Acting, script, and thoughtful pacing are nearly absent, with none of our three heroes inspiring much confidence (or even interest), while John Rhys-Davies phones in a half-hearted performance as the elven king.
The books’ only vaguely original, underlying conceit—that their high fantasy world is actually a post-apocalyptic version of our own world—is largely trampled by anachronistic set design; 2,000 years after the fall of civilization subway maps are legible, kitchen appliances appear randomly in mint condition, and road signs show little damage. And this is in a futuristic Pacific Northwest, where, as a Washingtonian, I can tell you rocks start to molder after a few weeks outdoors. On top of that, no establishing chronology offered by the show explains the elves’ or demons’ presence in the universe.
Even the soundtrack is inane.
The Shannara Chronicles does have its moments. Manu Bennett admirably salvages most of his scenes as the Druid Allanon—one of (if not the only) character who reliably knows what’s going on—but a salvage mission it is in the face of the surrounding debacle. The genuinely gorgeous New Zealand cinematography also adds to show’s watchability, as do the effort and budget devoted to visual effects.
If you’re looking for suitable Sword and Sorcery to bridge the gap between Game of Thrones seasons, you could do worse. But you could do a lot better, too.
As I write this, the decision to renew or cancel The Shannara Chronicles has yet to be made. I can’t say I’m waiting with bated breath.