'Are you, Are you, Coming to the Tree...'

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
(USA, 123 min.)
Dir. Francis Lawrence, Writ. Peter Craig and Danny Strong
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1.
Photo Credit: Murray Close / eOne Films

Are you, Are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree…

Are you, Are you
Coming to the tree
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.
Strange things did happen here,
No stranger would it be,
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
-“The Hanging Tree”

The Hunger Games goes darks and digs underground in the first half of the final installment of the franchise’s epic conclusion. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), aka The Girl on Fire, is back and this time… she sings! Yes, JLaw carries a tune fairly well, although HG fans will surely recall her crooning for Ru in the franchise’s first instalment. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 puts the rebellion that underlies the first two instalments at the forefront of the final half-chapter and it gets a strong anthem in the central theme “The Hanging Tree” that Katniss sings as she mourns for all the citizens of Panem who have fallen to President Snow. Mockingjay tackles the political elements of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian fiction as citizens across the Districts stand with Katniss and co., but while this sequel makes notable headway in terms of beefing up the YA world, it also loses the one thing that is so central to the power of the Hunger Games franchise: the games themselves.

The other half of the movie remains—I’ve actually only read the first installment of the series—so it’s entirely possible that fans hungry to see Katniss dominate the ring could be sated when Mockingjay concludes next year. Mockingjay – Part 1, however, doesn’t suffer at all for losing the games since they’re arguably the weak link of Catching Fire. It feels as if Katniss has grown up now that she’s out of the ring and using her Mockingjay whistle as a rallying cry. The games are broken, anyways, and there’s a bigger, better game to be had as Katniss joins up with the underground rebels of District 13, led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, rocking a Jane Campion hair-cut) and aims to unify the masses into overthrowing the Capital and President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

 Mockingjay offers a battle of wits as Katniss and her team, which includes a handful of Catching Fire returnees—Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), Finnick (Sam Claflin), and a shockingly dowdy Effie (a scene-stealing Elizabeth Banks, who still brings Effie’s flamboyant sass without the wig and make-up)—and some welcome new recruits, including The Tudors’ Natalie Dormer, spread their message to the other Districts. President Snow hits back with his own messenger, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who may have turned on Katniss since they were separated in the games of Catching Fire or may be a victim of Snow’s sinister crusade against Katniss. Mockingjay makes weaponry out of words and images as the rebels spread the truth and Snow spreads lies.

Mockingjay offers the fullest Katniss of the two-and-a-half films, since Katniss spends less time in physical battle and more time debating the merits of rebellion with President Coin and Plutarch. Lawrence holds her own with Moore and Hoffman and, once again, the strong cast offers but one reason why The Hunger Games series sits above most other YA fare. Moore is a welcome addition to the franchise with her cool and stoic performance. Hoffman, meanwhile, is memorable in his final screen performance, which is somewhat abbreviated since the director Francis Lawrence opts not to finish the film with a CGI stand-in, but Hoffman’s talent is one that cannot be replaced. (Some of his lines are passed on to other cast members.)

Mockingjay, on the other hand, gives more attention to Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than the previous films do and he’s not nearly as interesting a character as Peeta is—he’s far too perfect and Hemsworth is far too bland—but the tension that builds from Peeta’s absence builds enough momentum to keep the plot engaging as it lays a strong foundation for the second part of Mockingjay. The film features an epic betrayal as Katniss’s former ally becomes her wobbly crutch, and Mockingjay ends by introducing a new psychological battle between Katniss and Peeta that could easily lead to the showdown they thwarted with their Romeo and Juliet charade during the first session of the games. Mockingjay takes a markedly darker shift from the previous instalments of the series, although the films are dark enough to begin with, thanks to the underground rebellion and a sassier, angrier Katniss as Snow’s manipulation fuels her fire. Mockingjay, more than either of the previous two Hunger Games films, shows how much the series rests on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence and how much she elevates the film.

Mockingjay also marks a notable departure from the other Hunger Games films simply for how expository it feels despite being the beginning of the end for the franchise. It’s not Divergently sluggish, but it feels like two hours of build-up as the script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong fleshes out characters and their motivation for returning the cry of the Mockingjay. Mockingjay is, after all, only half a movie even with its two-hour running time. While it’s admirable that a film with a teen-targeted audience devotes so much time to layering the film with depth, character, and subtext, one can’t help but feel that this installment seems uncharacteristically bloated for The Hunger Games. Everyone knows why Katniss, Coin, et al want to destroy Snow since they’ve seen his dirty work in the first two films, so a longer, tighter, and more streamlined Mockingjay might best offer an epic conclusion versus a one-two punch delivered months apart. Still, Mockingjay – Part 1 inevitably has audiences hooked for Part 2 and leaves one hungry for Katniss’s grand finale. She’s just amassing an army with her soulful tune for a bigger, better fight.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is now in theatres from eOne Films.

What did you think of Mockingjay – Part 1?