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Early Reviews Are In: 'Catching Fire' Leaves First 'Hunger Games' in the Dust

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Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in "Catching Fire"

Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in "Catching Fire" (Photo Credit: Lionsgate)

Maybe we were distracted by Effie Trinket's special walk (or maybe it was Caesar Flickerman's cotton-candy hair), but we didn't see this coming: The first reviews of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" are in, and they're pretty much awesome across the board (with 14 reviews in so far, the film is currently registering a 93 percent approval rating on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes). In fact, many of them assert that not only is the franchise's second installment a solid film on its own, but also that it's leaps-and-bounds better than its predecessor.

What exactly makes it better?

[Related: 'Catching Fire' Stars Get Personal in Co-Star Connections Game Show]

Let's start with Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jennifer Lawrence.

The Independent credits J. Law's "full-blooded performance" for lifting up the film, while The Hollywood Reporter praises her for once again being "the superb center of it all." The Wrap echoes these sentiments, asserting, "Jennifer Lawrence leads an impressive cast in a saga that’s smarter and more thrilling than its predecessor."

Aside from Lawrence, the rest of the cast is getting kudos. The Hollywood Reporter notes that Hutcherson "comes into his own more confidently than before," and there is similar praise for other returning players (especially Donald Sutherland's slimy president) as well as noteworthy newcomers (like Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Also boosting "Catching Fire's" cachet: a new director. Calling the sequel "far superior," Variety's Peter Debruge explains, "Though technically just the bridge between the lower-budget original and the two-part finale still to come, in director Francis Lawrence’s steady hands (gone are the previous film’s needlessly spastic camera moves) 'Catching Fire' makes for rousing entertainment in its own right, leaving fans riled and ready to storm the castle."

[Related: Replay: 'Catching Fire' London Premiere]

The review goes on to describe Francis as "a director with a firm grasp of large-canvas filmmaking, equally skilled at tense, white-knuckle sci-fi… and bald, unapologetic romance," praising him for finding "the perfect balance between emotions and excitement."

But the director might have had a better starting point thanks to two new writers who penned the script. The Hollywood Reporter praised the new scribes, Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"), for crafting a script that "reflects the shape, emphasis and incident of the book with almost scientific precision" and claims their "desire to deliver the goods is keenly felt." The Wrap agreed, saying the new screenwriting blood created a story that "keeps the thematic plates spinning." That's something you never thought you'd hear to describe a YA film.

It seems that this sophomore installment of the four-part series ("Mockingjay" will be spliced into two flicks) succeeds across the board for a whopping 146 minutes with "no dead spaces" — nothing short of a small miracle. (So far there's only one dissenter: that'd be Screen International's Tim Grierson, who calls the sequel "ho-hum").

[Related: Hear the 'Catching Fire' Soundtrack First]

We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but sounds like audiences (and hey, even critics) will be excited to see what's in store for the third chapter … which we're pretty certain means everything's going perfectly according to Hollywood's master plan.

Watch Yahoo's Marissa Mayer chat with Jennifer Lawrence and Francis Lawrence:

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