LONDON -- The 2012 Summer Olympic Games get under way tonight with a spectacular opening ceremony that faces a unique challenge: to be as memorable as Beijing's planet-wowing, money-no-object extravaganza of 2008.
The British capital will set itself apart, as it has so often throughout the centuries, by being different.
Beijing's curtain raiser featured 2,008 pounding drummers and a cauldron-lighter who seemed to float in the air of the Bird's Nest stadium.
London will have 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, and nine geese -- recruited by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle along with a cast and crew of 10,000 to present a quirky and vibrant vision of quintessential Britain, its history, and future.
In depicting Britain, warts and all, Mr. Boyle has drawn from William Shakespeare, British pop culture, literature, and music, and other sources of inspiration that will speak not just to Anglophiles but to people across the globe.
One segment involves actor Daniel Craig's James Bond, and former Beatle Paul McCartney will lead a sing-along. Mr. Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" show will celebrate the green and pleasant land of meadows, farms, cottages, village cricket matches, and bird song.
As well as thousands of athletes and performers, an estimated 60,000 spectators will pack the Olympic Stadium. Political leaders from around the world, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty also will attend.
According to the Sunday Times, one section will feature characters from children's fiction classics including Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan -- and a showdown between Lord Voldemort, the villain of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and a horde of flying magical nannies based on Mary Poppins.
"I would have thought the difficulty is how you cram in all that is great about our country," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday. "Whether it is sport, art, literature, history, contribution to world events, there are so many things to celebrate about our country that packing all that in to these hours must be a pretty tough task. But I am confident they have done a good job."
In Beijing, the geopolitical significance of China's rise as a global superpower was as much the story as the sports. London, the first city to host the event a third time after games in 1908 and 1948, could in contrast be a purer Olympics, more about the athletes than the context.
Queen Elizabeth will officially open the games at today's ceremony that will start with the sound of a 27-ton bell forged at the 442-year-old Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which made London's Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
Lavishing more than $14 billion, triple the estimated cost when London secured the games in 2005, in the midst of severe economic storms in Britain and Europe has provoked persistent questions about whether the expense can be justified.
Where China went for shock and awe -- playing host to the most expensive Olympics in history to herald its arrival on the world stage -- a Britain locked in recession and fully aware that its grandest days are behind it is trying to do more with less.
London's effort is set to be better attended than the Beijing Games while costing nearly half as much.
In London and host cities across Great Britain, the 10,490 athletes from 205 nations will compete in more temporary stadiums this year than at the last three summer Games combined.
Nevertheless, there is still grand ambition afoot.
"We're not the biggest country in the world, and we can't do a China-style Olympics, nor could we do something on the scale of the U.S.," said John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, Britain's cultural promotion agency.
"But I think we can offer a celebration. What you're going to get, generally speaking, is an image of the U.K. as it is, warts and all."
There have been concerns during the preparation stages. The British media have savaged the government and the British contractor G4S for last-minute security-staffing screw-ups. The BBC has derided the "fat cats" at the International Olympic Committee for spending lavishly on five-star hotels.
Mitt Romney, in London for big-ticket fund-raisers and to attend the Games' opening ceremonies, stirred things up by seeming to question London's Olympic spirit and readiness in a round of media interviews.
In response, Mr. Cameron alluded to the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which Mr. Romney ran, by saying "of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere."
Miffed by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's comments, the saucy Daily Mail retorted, "Who invited him?
The Olympic flame took a valedictory lap around London on Thursday, taking in some of the capital's most famous landmarks and getting a royal welcome on the second-to-last day of its trek across Britain.
Prince William, his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother, Prince Harry, posed for photographs as torch bearers took the flame to the steps of Buckingham Palace.
At London's Hyde Park, where the torch relay ended, it was greeted by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who took a swipe at Mr. Romney's suggestions that Britain might not be ready to host the games.
"There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready," Mr. Johnson asked the screaming crowd. "Are we ready? Yes, we are!"