"The Hunger Games" features high-tension action that eclipses the "Twilight" films and has more magical character development than the "Harry Potter" series -- making it a prime contender for the next great film series.
This is that rare case of a movie that will please fans of the books and those who have never heard of the series. The film is loyal enough to the original story to please fans of the book, and it is written and acted so superbly that it should entertain most movie fans.
"The Hunger Games," set in the not-so-distant future, follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and 23 other teenagers representing 12 districts. Each year two dozen teens -- one boy and one girl from each district -- travel to the opulent capital city where they are trained and prepped for a brutal battle that leaves only one person standing. It's a harsh way for the ruling class to remind the impoverished districts who's in charge.
Their battles are monitored and manipulated in front of TV cameras in a twisted variation of Roman coliseum-style entertainment. This year's Hunger Games get a new twist when Katniss proves both a worthy opponent in the arena and against the political powers who control the games.
There is no young actor who has the ability to handle both the physical and emotional challenges of the role as well as Lawrence. Her acting is so honest that every emotion resonates with a truthfulness that compels us to watch. Whether she is faking a romance to earn favor among the viewers or mourning the death of a competitor, her work is less a performance and more a spiritual, emotional and physical metamorphosis.
With an acting skill years beyond her age, Lawrence has shown it is possible to be in a big action movie and still turn in a performance worthy of Oscar attention. If her career continues the way it has started, she will be the next Meryl Streep.
She is surrounded by actors who also transform themselves. Woody Harrelson turns in a commanding performance as the former "Hunger Games" winner assigned to mentor the competitors. And Lenny Kravitz, who doesn't have as much screen time as the others, as Cinna proves his standout acting work in "Push" was no fluke. Even the annoying character of Effie Trinket, the group's public relations guru, comes across as multi-dimensional through the work of Elizabeth Banks.
Although marketed as a teen-fiction series, there is a violent element to the books. Director Gary Ross was able to keep the brutal essence of this fight to the death without having to resort to obligatory violence. The emotional aspect is just as strong.
It helped that Ross had series writer Suzanne Collins to help with the script. A few elements of the first book had to be sacrificed, mainly because the character wasn't that important or the sequence was too hard to transform from printed page to screen.
Brilliant production direction by Philip Messina and costuming by Judianna Makovsky add additional layers of enjoyment to the film.
"The Hunger Games" is a powerful cautionary tale about what happens to the human spirit in clashes with the inhumanity of man. It's presented in such an intriguing and well-crafted fashion that the next film in the series can't arrive too soon.
"The Hunger Games," rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images. Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wood Harrelson. Directed by Gary Ross. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes. Grade: A | Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org
or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.