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hunger-games-movie-wp_trio01Now that Harry Potter has cast his last cinematic spell and “Twilight” is fast fading into that breaking dawn, Hollywood is looking for the next best young adult sensation.

But how do you replace one of the biggest movie franchises of all time and the series that gave us warring werewolves and vampires?

How about with a blockbuster that feels like an indie film? “The Hunger Games” is poised to become a massive hit, but it feels more like a character study than the start of an epic payday for Tinsel Town.

Based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’s mega-successful series, “The Hunger Games” is set in Panem, a dystopian world ruled by a fascistic leader (Donald Sutherland). Each year the state hold The Hunger Games, a battle to death between twenty four players, two from each of the country’s districts. The televised games are equal parts “Miss Universe,” “American Idol” and “Death Race.” The story follows two “tributes” from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), two reluctant warriors whose survival is at stake.

From its opening moments “The Hunger Games” feels more intimate, thanks to some inventive hand held camera work, than you’d expect. And that’s a good thing.

As fans of the books know, the focus of the story is the characters. Sure they are thrown into a wild situation, but knowing and caring about Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark—admiring Katniss’s inner strength and courage or Peeta’s big heart—is as important to the success of the story as are the action scenes or the dystopian premise.

The result is a film that feels more mature than the “Twilight” series, although all the Young Adult tropes are very much in place.

Jennifer Lawrence has found the role that she will, likely, forever be associated with and brings substance to it. She imbues Katniss with a rich inner life—you can see the machinations of the character churning behind her eyes. This level of performance is critical to the success to not only this film, but also the inevitable sequels.

She is ably supported by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland Lenny Kravitz (who could easily have a second career as an actor) and Josh Hutcherson, but make no, mistake, this is her movie. She’s in virtually every scene and her growth from venerable shy girl to sly competitor is the beating heart of the story.

I enjoyed the subdued feel of “The Hunger Games,” but I couldn’t help but wonder what a truly visionary director like Terry Gilliam might have done with this material. Likely not handed in a PG-13 movie, but his imaginative, twisted take on a world where kids kill one another in reality shows would have been interesting to see.

Which is not to say director Gary “Seabiscuit” Ross has dropped the ball here. Not at all, he’s made a film that is both epic and intimate, timely—imagine the Kardashians with knives and bloodlust—which doesn’t pander to its audience.

“The Hunger Games” is somewhat formulaic in its approach, but it also is a (potential) blockbuster that puts the story and characters first and the special effects second. That’s a welcome formula.

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