Not since Han Solo was encased in carbonite has the second stanza of a fantasy movie franchise left me cliff-hung like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Never was that wild about Harry, Hobbits or Twihards, nor did I expect to be now.
This is one sequel that doesn't exist simply to bide time, or stretch profits and patience. Director Francis Lawrence's movie feels like the natural momentum of hypernatural events, a coltish yarn maturing like its characters.
Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) returns as Katniss Everdeen, without any hint of obligation to a contract she'd prefer to break after winning an Academy Award. Katniss, however, is duty-bound to feign romance with her Hunger Games co-champion Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), after they captured the hearts of Panem in part 1, upending the rules and striking a spark of rebellion.
Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland, deliciously malicious) sees through the sham romance. Katniss and Peeta are sent on a victory tour of Panem's 12 districts, where evidence of rebellion against Snow's dictatorship is glimpsed through the windows of a bullet train. Katniss and Peeta are unwilling faces of the revolution Snow wants eliminated but not martyred.
Enter Catching Fire's crafty new addition, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the Hunger Games' new commissioner. Plutarch suggests a special champions' edition for the games' 75th anniversary, with former winners drafted against their wills to compete. Only one will survive — draining the potential people's hero pool — and he'll arrange that it won't be Katniss or Peeta.
The new rules are crucial to the saga's expansion beyond its Lord of the Flies elements that made part 1 compelling but unsustainable. Rather than children killing children to defend their districts, it's a multigenerational mix of battle-tested veterans — several played by more accomplished actors — like a pair of brainiacs (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer), and a tough-to-peg vixen (Jena Malone). Not many youth-oriented franchises would include an elderly mute (Lynn Cohen) with such respect.
None are eager to return to combat, and being shoved by the government stirs allegory of your choosing. Stakes are higher in Catching Fire, making this a uniquely personal epic, with more conflict conveyed by closeups than widescreen action. That's a bravely auteurish way of filming what is essentially popcorn entertainment.
The franchise continues to impress with its measured romanticism, keeping a love triangle among Peeta, Katniss and her preference, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), on less goo-goo eyed terms than some teen immortals we could name. Such restraint enables Catching Fire to drop in a hunky newcomer like Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) and not feel obliged to make it a foursome.
The fantasy factors of Catching Fire are modestly conceived, embracing the fakery of its digital matte scenery and complementing it with equally garish sets, costumes and makeup. Stanley Tucci's blizzard-white capped teeth as games TV host Caesar Flickerman, Katniss and Peeta's blazing formalwear and Elizabeth Banks' mascara fiascos as their chaperone Effie Trinket leave stronger impressions than CGI hovercraft and force fields.
None of these fantasy elements overshadow the story's grounded sense of humanity, or hinders developing these predicaments. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is movie escapism made with intelligence, and that doesn't come around often enough. As I sensed this movie ending I wished it wouldn't, and when it did I wanted the next one now. Take that, Bilbo.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.