"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" suffers from a recurring problem that hampers single literary properties stretched over the course of more than one movie. It's too bloated.

In deciding to adapt the final Suzanne Collins novel into two films, the brain trust behind the franchise has saddled director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong with the burden of turning what is essentially the climax of a larger story into some four hours of screen time.

So in this first installment, in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) joins the cause of the District 13 rebels against the Capitol of Panem, we get a veritable clinic on political propaganda as the rebels and the government use Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as dueling symbols. There's a whole lot of filler in which a morose Katniss explores the remnants of various districts in the wake of Capitol assaults.

It all feels like the extended setup for a payoff that is surely coming in next year's final installment rather than a complete picture in and of itself.

But there's still plenty of exciting stuff this time around, as the action builds toward the finale and the story is finally freed from the constraints of returning to the Hunger Games themselves. Francis Lawrence, who also helmed last year's "Catching Fire," has a strong grasp on this world and a keen sense of how to build tension through parallel action. The movie's one virtuoso action sequence is immeasurably enhanced by the ways the director integrates the figures watching it unfold in the rebels' command center.

This sequel reaffirms the series' commitment to the bleak vision of this dystopian world that goes beyond the many imitators. The PG-13 rating is again pushed to the limit with a whole lot of darkness, including charred bodies and public executions, and the long arm of the fascist government is felt throughout. The production design reflects the overall tone: the ostentatious glitz of the Capitol is replaced with the Rebels' spare, dusty underground bunker much as the showier previous installments give way to the simpler and more immediate concern of commencing a rebellion.

It's hard to shake the notion that Jennifer Lawrence seems bored with the whole shebang and the filmmakers still haven't figured out what to do with poor Liam Hemsworth, whose Gale Hawthorne is condemned to stand around woodenly and pine for Katniss. Yet this first "Mockingjay" benefits from a characteristically strong supporting cast, with stalwarts including Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci joined by Julianne Moore, as District 13's president, and an increased role for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

They're key to what makes this series watchable, if not quite the riveting epic it wants to be, by bringing a strong sense of authenticity. That the picture leaves you interested in experiencing where this all ends says something, even if so much of this one feels disposable in the grand scheme of things.

 


Directed by Francis Lawrence

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson