While other young-adult novel adaptations preoccupy themselves with knockoff magic and chaste vampires, The Hunger Games series instead caters to the "adult" part of the equation. Taking what initially seemed like a watered-down version of Battle Royale, it has created a sprawling and very grown-up world for young audiences. With Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence further expands this post-apocalyptic universe where children are forced to slay one another in an annual gladiatorial event designed to tamp down discontent. This film finds heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her milquetoast co-champ Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on a "victory tour" through a country where the rich bathe in luxury while the poor undergo flogging and execution in what resembles WWII-era Russia. Fearing Katniss will become a symbol for a simmering rebellion, the president (Donald Sutherland) forces her back into the arena with even deadlier stakes. As with the first film, Catching Fire goes slightly flat once the actual Hunger Games commence. But in the lead-up to the most violent episode of Survivor imaginable, the director crafts a dense dystopia full of political allegory, media satire and other elements that most YA films consider their core audiences too dumb to handle. Though flawed, Catching Fire manages something no adaptation since Harry Potter has: It respects its fans enough to challenge them while maturing alongside them.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Bagdad, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, CineMagic, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Roseway, Division, St. Johns, Movies on TV.