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Home Blog Popcorn Parent Movie Reviews Family Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13)

Family Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13)

It helps that “Catching Fire” has a new director, Francis Lawrence, who pushes not only the action in this installment but also the cultural impact of war, the stress and trauma involved in the aftermath. Suzanne Collins’s original novel very clearly focused on those elements, and Lawrence rightly adapts them for the screen. Katniss’s screams in the night as she remembers her first time in the Arena? Her family’s shocked reactions when Katniss learns she has to return for a second Hunger Games? The unwavering loyalty Peeta demonstrates for Katniss, the love of his life? President Snow’s measured threats, his barely veiled contempt for the District 12 victor? It’s all there, all the parts of this universe that hold such appeal for millions of readers worldwide.

Undoubtedly, if you’re a viewer who is only aware of the story in this film format—without the added context of Collins’s novels—you might miss some things, especially the tweaks Lawrence makes to the plot to help transition into the next two films, based on the final book, “Mockingjay.” But most of the changes, like an expanded role for Head Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, stealing every scene he’s in); a granddaughter for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who actually appears onscreen, interacting with her patriarch; and less time in District 12, where Katniss’s best friend/love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth, of “Paranoia”) remains as she returns to the Arena, work quite well, adding good balance to the plot.

Other edits (deleted bonding scenes between Katniss and Peeta, their viewing of mentor Haymitch’s win during the Hunger Games, and an extra kiss between Katniss and Gale that wasn’t in the book) are less successful, but they’re not offensive. They’re unfortunate choices for fans specifically tied to those elements (like me!), but they don’t do irrevocable damage to the story.

The story in “Catching Fire” picks up where “The Hunger Games” ended, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence, of “House at the End of the Street”) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “Red Dawn”) being named co-victors, the first District 12 has had since their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, of “Free Birds” and “Now You See Me”) won years ago. The two won by pretending to be in love, appealing to the viewers throughout Panem’s poor districts and the opulent Capitol, and forcing totalitarian President Snow (Sutherland) to save them both instead of forcing one to kill the other. But Katniss didn’t really reciprocate the feelings of love Peeta has had for her since childhood, and finds herself torn between Peeta and her best friend Gale—and threatened by Snow, who shows up at her house to warn her of rebellion in the districts. They see Katniss as a symbol of defiance, and they want to rise up behind her—so unless she convinces President Snow that she’s just a silly girl in love, just so in love with Peeta that she couldn’t stop herself, he’ll kill everyone she loves before killing her.

So there’s that drama, along with Katniss’s post-traumatic stress disorder, and the harsher new rules in District 12. Oh, and one other thing—Katniss is called back into the Hunger Games, a failsafe plan for President Snow and new Head Gamesmaker Plutarch (Hoffman). What better way to get rid of Katniss as a threat than to kill her? So she and Peeta are pulled again into the Arena, where Haymith encourages them to pair up with other former victors, like gorgeous young victor Finnick (Sam Claflin, of “Snow White and the Huntsman”), angry and sarcastic Johanna (Jena Malone, of “Sucker Punch”), and sad-eyed tech genius Beetee (Jeffrey Wright, of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”). “Remember who the real enemy is,” Haymitch tells Katniss before she goes into the Games. But after she resolutely decides to keep Peeta alive during these Games since he saved her the last time, the enemies—tidal waves, murderous monkeys, poisonous fog, and so forth in the Arena—make it harder than she could ever imagine.

What “Catching Fire” does so well is envelop you in the same dread and panic that consumes Katniss, and make you understand and agree with her stubbornness and loyalty. The film’s obviously large budget is really evident in its production value, which grounds you in very specific kinds of space: in the rundown mining town atmosphere of District 12, the sleek and voyeuristic design of the train taking Katniss and Peeta back to the Capitol, the opulence and ridiculousness of President Snow’s palace, and, of course, the Arena, the scariest jungle of them all. To complement those surroundings are the fantastic performances, not only from Lawrence—who effectively conveys Katniss’s careening emotions, from anger to terror to love—but also from Hutcherson, who really taps into Peeta’s charm, earnestness, and genuine affection for the other victors. In the last movie, he was just a guy in love with Katniss; this time around, he’s a fighter of his own, a force to be reckoned with. And this stacked ensemble—Sutherland, Wright, and Harrelson, as well as Stanley Tucci as talk-show host Caesar Flickman, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’s fashion designer Cinna, and Elizabeth Banks as District 12 handler Effie Trinket—adds tons of pedigree.

“There’s always a flaw in the system,” Beetee tells Katniss, and the climax of “Catching Fire” revolves around that principle—not only in how it applies to power structures and governments, but also in interpersonal relationships, in how we think of each other and what we expect from one another. The best-laid plans always go wrong, and “Catching Fire” does a great job making that point in a wartime context. The fact that it’s an excellent film, with engaging performances and a solid script, too? That’s all bonus. Bring it on, “Mockingjay.”

Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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