The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

It is difficult to examine this film without comparing it to its direct predecessor. Unfortunately, it is not a comparison that does the film any favors. The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t quite have the same energy as An Unexpected Journey. That really isn’t a flaw, it’s not supposed to have that energy. That unexpected journey is nearing its end and the party of dwarves and hobbit and sometimes wizard is tired. That makes this movie somewhat less enjoyable than the first, especially since the existence of the third film keeps it from having any conclusions either. Still, there are moments that have just as much kinetic fun as any film and the gravitas that the first one failed so spectacularly with works better here.

It is more Hobbit. The first half hour or so could have easily been part of the previous film with no one noticing. I am going to assume people have read the book and know the general flow of the story, so if not beware spoilers. It starts with encounters with the bear-man Beorn, then they get lost in the Mirkwood, captured by giant spiders and once they get free are captured by elves. It is the same sort of roller coaster ride feeling that made the first film so enjoyable and it peaks with the wonderful, funny escape via barrel. That is definitely the high point of the movie. It is kinetic and fun; it just brings a smile to the viewer’s face. The dwarves are stuck, for the most part, in their barrels while the Elves try to thwart their escape. At the same time, a pack of Orcs show up trying to kill the dwarves. So the dwarves float in the barrels while the Orcs and Elves fight each other to get them. It is cartoonish in the best way. After that things take a turn for the somber, though the movie never loses its comedic bent.

The additions and changes in this one seem more fundamental than in the first movie. There was some rearranging and plenty of additions in An Unexpected Journey, but it was mostly making background stuff explicit and giving the movie an antagonist that the first half of the book lacked. In The Desolation of Smaug, the changes are greater. Yes, the Hobbit never let the read know exactly what Gandalf was up to, only that he had to deal with a Necromancer. This film shows us that. Not a problem, especially since they made the decision to split this into three movies. Then there is the appearance of Legolas. Logical, since the dwarves go through his home, but his role is greatly expanded from anything that was in the books. Then there is Tauriel, a laudable attempt to balance the almost wholly male cast before this. Honestly, she fits right in. None of the changes in and of themselves are bad, but added up the changes make it feel like the film was getting too far away from the book at times.

The film greatest failure and its greatest triumph is the dragon, Smaug. Bilbo’s encounter with the dragon had the opportunity to mirror his encounter with Gollum from the first movie. Again he is separated from the dwarves and must get by on his own. His whole encounter with the dragon is wonderful. Then the dwarves get involved. It is the same problem that the first movie had, that at the end the dwarves had nothing to do, but the extended escape sequence not only loses the point of having Bilbo at all, but also lack the energy that made the barrel ride scene of goblintown s enjoyable. It feels flat and padded and greatly lessens the threat that Smaug supposedly is. If he is so dangerous, how do a double handful of dwarves evade him so casually? It really is a letdown.

I haven’t lost my faith in Peter Jackson. I eagerly await the third and final film. The dreary nature of the second half of this movie makes it hard to come out with as good a feeling as the first film. It does a great job of hammering home how selfish the dwarves quest is at its heart. The first film paints it as a noble attempt to reclaim their homeland, this one makes it clear that there are other considerations. The Desolation of Smaug is a film with significant hills and valleys and unfortunately, it ends at its lowest point.

What I’ve Been Playing Nov ‘13

November was a big gaming month, but not so much for me. I know the current generation of consoles has been the longest lasting ever, but I’m not really ready to move on. Maybe that’s not right. Its not that I’m not interested in new hardware; I’m just not interested in any of the games for those consoles. As this generation has gone on, my tastes have drifted further and further from the mainstream. Again, that’s not quite right. I still like the same kind of games I’ve always liked, they are just not the mainstream at all anymore. So I am not likely to drop the big money on a PS4 or an XBone any time soon. I’m more than happy with my 3DS and WiiU. Plus, there are still plenty of good PS3 games I haven’t had the chance to play yet. Luckily for me, Nintendo keeps pumping out games that are right in my wheelhouse. So let’s rundown what I played last month.

Beaten

Super Mario 3D World: I’ll try to have a full write up of this soon, but suffice to say I liked it a whole bunch. It is the best Mario game since Super Mario Galaxy 2 and is maybe better than that. Maybe.

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Dual Destinies: I’ve already wrote this game up. It is an excellent entry in this series. I haven’t got around to the DLC case, but I’ve powered through the rest and loved it.

Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages: Another game I’ve already written up. It’s good, not great.

Ongoing

Final Fantasy XIII-2: I’m making progress. I’m still liking it, despite the story being, amazingly, worse than the first FFXIII game.

Pokemon HeartGold: I’m steadily making progress in the only Pokemon game I’ve never beaten. It is hard to go back to the DS games after playing the 3DS one. Its slower and uglier. The other problem I’m having is that I’m having trouble building a team that fits my style. I like fast, hard hitting Pokemon and there just don’t seem to be many of those around early in HeartGold. Maybe I’m just making bad choices, but everything seems to be slow and /or defensive. It’s just not my style.

Pokemon Y: I am so close to finishing up my competitive team. I’ve been making really slow progress on this. Still, until recently this has been the game in my 3DS cartridge slot.

Etrian Odyssey Untold: I finally maxed out my team on the Demo and moved on to the full game. I’m trying it with the story team, and it is a different experience. Through the first Stratum, I’d say not as good an experience. It still fun, but I miss being able to truly customize my party. Right now it feels limiting, though the personalities are a fun addition. I expect my progress to be slow, but steady.

Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons: I’m about halfway through this already. So far I’m finding this game much better than the other Oracle game. Its just faster, more compact. I might like it more than Link’s Awakening.

Wii Fit U: I got the free version of this, through Nintendo’s deal for people who own a balance board and are willing to buy the pedometer. It is a useful tool if not a true weight loss answer in itself.

Upcoming

Ratchet and Clank All 4 One: I really want to finish this up soon. Me and my brother are real close to the end, though we haven’t played since summer.

Pikmin 3: It’s in my WiiU right now. I just need to turn it on.

Earthbound: I promise this time.

Super Princess Peach: I tried to buy this off of ebay a few years ago, but ended up with a bootleg cart. I’ve kind of realized I’m never going to see this in the wild, so I’m just going to play that bootleg.

Rocket Knight: I bought this when I first got my PS3, played about 2/3s of it but then kind of lost track of it. It shouldn’t take me too long to finish.

What I Read in Nov ‘13

Yep. This is a low volume year for me. I’ll likely end on a decently high note, as I should finish 5 or 6 books in December. But November was a 1 book month. Unless I forgot a book. Which has happened before, but it doesn’t say much for the book or my reading abilities.

The Pastures of Heaven

John Steinbeck

I found a weathered, beaten copy of this after my basement flooded a few months ago. It was printed in the mid 40’s and was in the local library through the 60’s. The mysterious appearance of this old copy of this book is as interesting as the book itself. The Pastures of Heaven is the first I’ve read of Steinbeck. Somehow I never managed to read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. After reading this, they have moved up my to read list. The Pastures of Heaven is not considered one of his better works, but it was good, if slight.

The Pastures of Heaven is a connected short story collection. Each chapter is its own story, but together they tell the larger story of the town in the valley known as the Pastures of Heaven. The stories deal with small town life, poverty and family. It tells the story of the town as well as the people who live there. The themes aren’t really strong enough to tie the stories together, though. It is just a collection of loosely related stories, none of which are that interesting on their own. Still, its short, easy read that is just interesting enough to be worth it.

That is the only book I finished in November.

2nd Quest: Oracle of Ages

It took a few months, but I finally finished up Oracle of Ages. I then jumped right into Oracle of Seasons. I’m also working on Majora’s Mask again. Hopefully I’ll have this series replay finished up in the next few months. Though Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are both lengthy endeavors, so that could slow things down again. And I guess I’ll be adding A Link Between Worlds to the list, since I am sure to get it by the end of the year. Now, on to Oracle of Ages.

If anyone remembers, assuming that anyone actually read it, I was not too impressed with Link’s Awakening. I thought it was too simple and hampered by the limitations of the Gameboy. Playing Oracle of Ages has helped me appreciate just good Link’s Awakening really is. Because this game has many of the same flaws but is all around less charming. Most of the problems have actually grown worse. It is still a Gameboy games, the limitations of the system are still in place.

Still, Oracle of Ages manages to have some really good dungeons. Many of them are simply great. They are complex mazes that require both skill and logic to complete. Any time you are in one of the eight dungeons the game is simply great. The available tools are very limited, but they are all good for multiple uses. The game also trusts the player to figure it out on their own, which is always good in a game well enough designed that the player can figure it out.

Where the game falters is in the overworld. That is one of the most tedious, boring things ever put in a Zelda game. There are some interesting characters, Ralph, Queen Ambi and Nayru, but most of them are just generic villagers. To get into each dungeon the player needs a key and to get it the player must solve some problems in the world, usually by warping back and forth through time. A lot of it is needless filler just there to pad out the game. It is what made me put down the game for so long and by the time I finished I began to dread completing a dungeon because I would have to go do stupid stuff like dance with Gorons or barter with Lizards to get my tools back. It is not fun.

What it feels like is Oracle of Ages is an attempt to bring the 3D style Zelda game to 2D, without the creators realizing that just like some things had to change to make the game work in 3D, so must some things change to make it work in 2D. I found myself voicing a lot of the complaints that many people have about 3D Zeldas, ones that I don’t tend to agree with, while playing Oracle of Ages. It really feels like a game made out of the worst parts of the Zelda series.

Still, the game isn’t that bad. It’s passable. Uneven is probably the best descriptor. When the game is good, like in the dungeons, it is really good; when it is bad it is truly bad. Link’s Awakening looks better in comparison, but it is still an enjoyable experience. If the first half of Oracle of Seasons and my memories of Minish Cap are true, this is the weakest Zelda on a Gameboy.