I've also come to wonder about my assessment of the book of Catching Fire. Back when I read the series, I judged it the weakest of the three, but a lot of reviews seem to rate is a lot more highly, so it may merit a revisit next year, prior to Mockingjay being released. However I certainly enjoyed the film a lot, benefiting as it does from being the mid-part of a trilogy, and playing to the freedoms that position can bring. We pick up the story just before Katniss and Peeta are due to go on their "Victory Lap" around the Districts, the film giving us a speedy recap of the events of The Hunger Games with a combination of Katniss' PTSD and Capitol propaganda broadcasts. The film quickly expands the world building and changes to the framing of the central conflicts, bringing in the looming revolts in the Districts and giving a context to the decisions that chuck everyone back into the arena.
The first act of the movie deals with the expanded framework, and is light on the action, and heavy on the character work. It's mostly Jennifer Lawrences to carry, which given that she's Jennifer Lawrence, she does with ease, even in the face of the two slightly bland and underwritten love interests she has to deal with. It seems to have become the trend to knock Josh Hutcherson's take on Peeta but to be honest Peeta is too bland and nice to be true, and its hardly the fault of the actor if thats how he comes across. I do think Hutcherson nails Peetas flair with the PR game however, and I'd be interested to see how he handles the tougher storylines to come.
Surrounding the younger cast is a pretty solid ensemble of older actors stealing the scenes they get to be in. Adding in scenes between the new Gamesmaker Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) adds some subtext-rich backstory to things that Katniss isn't aware of in the first person narrative of the books, and Elizabeth Banks manages to give some real emotional depth to the perennially shallow-as-a-puddle Effie Trinket. The new Tributes are pretty well cast too, although some get a little lost in translation, or squeezed to give Joanna and Finnick a little more time to steal their scenes.
If there is a criticism to make I think that it doesn't quite spend enough time in the arena, which seems to appear quite late in the film and then get slightly rushed through. The film is clearly spending more time and energy on working on the "new" story that will play forward, which is all very well, but it does unbalance everything a little, and like I say, costs some of the Quarter Quell Tributes the screen time that they got in the book. Oddly, it also makes the film feel like a "Part One" as the imbalance is in favour of adding a lot of the worldbuilding cut from The Hunger Games.
However, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film that makes light work of its 2-hour-plus running time. Its got a great central performance at the heart of it, and impressively savage tone to it's violence, with minimal triumphalism. It remembers who the real enemy is, probably the most important thing it had to get right. Roll on Mockingjay Part 1...