Katniss and Peeta Bread return for round two of The Friend Zone Games in Catching Fire, and to be honest, hopes weren’t high for me going into the theater. Maybe it was the minimal story told in the first film (yeah I can be a book snob).Maybe it was the movie’s ultra-photoshopped posters that made it look like some sort of shallow teen drama on The CW. For whatever reason, the odds weren’t favorable (sorry, my one and only pun here). But sometimes, it’s good to have your expectations surprised with a genuinely enjoyable journey through Panem.
That’s right! This time there’s at least an extra half hour of content to add a little background and character development- and it shows. As far as the actual writing and plot of the movie, I feel like this time they actually managed to capture the essence of the novel. Overall the story moves at a more relaxed speed that gives us more of a chance to get into the world. A highlight for me was all the new characters that are introduced, probably because the actors and actresses are a perfect fit. Even characters I didn’t really care for in the book (looking at you Finnick) were entertaining. Johanna (Jena Malone) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) in particular were my favorites and added a bit of flavor to whatever scene they appeared in.
The returning cast also improved and seem to be more comfortable in their roles. Somehow, Caesar’s character and Effie’s costumes are even more outrageous. It’s always fun to watch actors who are obviously enjoying their role, and Stanley Tucci as Caesar could not be having a better time apparently. He stole each of his scenes with his over-the-top shallow gleefulness. Effie comes across as more likable now that she actually wants to help our District 12 tributes (but of course is pitifully helpless). She’s sort of become a likable version of Lady Gaga.
Woody Harrelson also deserves a special shout out as being incredibly likable as Haymitch. Of course, Jennifer Lawrence proves again that she’s the right choice for this lead and more than just another young face for Hollywood. Her facial expressions when Katniss finds out about District 12 at the end conveyed more emotions than Kristen Stewart’s entire acting career.
Finally, the special effects are generally good, with even the fire costumes looking a little more polished. The fog and the mutt monkeys were particularly well-done, and may or may not have given me nightmares. As usual, James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is indispensable to setting the tone and emotion of the tale.
Altogether, I really enjoyed this movie, although I’m a little concerned about how the studio decided to split the third book (by far my least favorite) into two films. I understand they want to make more profit, but this is still young adult literature- how much can they drag it out? Heck, at least Harry Potter’s last book was the size of a dictionary. Catching Fire may prove to be this trilogy’s Empire Strike Back (that means the best entry for you sheltered movie fans). But hey- maybe the writers will use a little artistic license to, I don’t know, change the disappointing ending of the third book (readers, you know what I’m talking about). Until then, at least we have two good movies to enjoy.