Just as the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series split books into double bills and dragged its already lengthy sagas out until they limped rather than accelerated toward their mutual climaxes, the “Hunger Games” franchise has slowed down to a snail’s pace, lingering over every actor’s frown or grimace.
It even devotes two unnecessary scenes to a cat in the new addition, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I”
The final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy has been divided in two parts and we should be grateful it wasn’t into thirds. Otherwise, we might have “The Hunger Games: The Cat Quandary.”
Up until this installment it’s been a terrific ride, featuring sharp writing, interesting choices in production design and wonderful actors who take their outlandish roles with a certain amount of seriousness.
No doubt, Part II will restore my faith and I’ll have a great time. But this one feels like a Coming Attraction.
Remember the heroine is supposed to be Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, the real auteur behind this series). She isn’t exactly marginalized in this one but the first hour is devoted not so much to her but how she’s used in a propaganda war between the rebels in District 13 and the evil rulers of the all-powerful Capitol.
Turns out you have to take her outdoors from the underground city of District 13 to witness a hospital bombing in order to get her into a fiery mood.
The next hour she is really marginalized though, watching the main action on monitors as a team of soldiers descend under cover of darkness and a niftily engineered blackout of the Capitol’s surveillance capabilities to extract three prisoners.
Things go all right — and then again maybe not so much. So stay tuned for the main action to come.
Credit returning director Francis Lawrence (who helms both “Mockingjay” movies) with keeping a decent amount of tension throughout the two hours when little tension is at hand. Much of this is done through camera movements, music cues and editing.
The actors, all still very good, are reduced to dialogue scenes in what is supposed to be an action series. Of course, any glimpse you can get of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is always a treasure. The film by the way is dedicated to his memory. Bravo for that.
Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland perform their returning roles as the Capitol’s MC/news anchor/chief propagandist and its president and chief villain entirely on TV monitors. Talk about phoning it in. Ditto that for Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark, who until the end is entirely seen on monitors as well.
Julianne Moore as the president of the rebels spends most of her time trying to figure out why the series needs another female leader when it already has the key one. Liam Hemsworth’s conflicted Gale is becoming more interesting as a character but all dramatic lines get so interrupted in this movie that this may or may not pan out.
Meanwhile Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks’ already somewhat campy roles are turned into the equivalent of wallpaper in this installment.
Fans of the books will turn out and excuse all this on the grounds that every scene, even that cat, is precious. Others will be understandably disappointed. But we’ll all return to see how it all turns out. No doubt about that.
You can only hope that Jennifer Lawrence reclaims crucial role. And the producers cut out that damn cat.
Opens: November 21, 2014 (Lionsgate)
Production companies: Color Force, Lionsgate
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong
Adaptation by: Suzanne Collins, based on her novel
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Phil Messina
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Kurt and Bart
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
PG-13 rating, 123 minutes