"The Hunger Games"

Richard's Review: 4 stars

Now that Harry Potter has cast his last cinematic spell and "Twilight" is fading fast into that breaking dawn, Hollywood is looking for the next best young adult sensation.

But how do you replace two of the biggest movie franchises of all time?

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 Tinseltown.

Based on the first book in Suzanne Collins' successful series, "The Hunger Games" is set in Panem, a dystopian world ruled by a fascistic leader (Donald Sutherland). Each year the state holds The Hunger Games, a battle to death between 24 players, two from each of the country's districts.

These televised games are equal parts "Miss Universe," "American Idol" and "Death Race." The story also 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.

As fans of the books know, the focus of the story is the characters. They may be thrown into a wild situation. But knowing and caring about Katniss and Peeta is as important to this story's success as the action scenes or dystopian premise.

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

Lawrence has found the role that will, most likely, be associated with her for the rest of her career. But she brings substance to it.

Lawrence imbues Katniss with a rich inner life. You can see the machinations of this character churning behind her eyes. This depth will play a big part in this film's success, as well as the inevitable sequels.

Lawrence is ably supported by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz and Josh Hutcherson. But make no, mistake: "The Hunger Games" is Lawrence's movie. She is in virtually every scene and her growth from a vulnerable, shy girl to a sly competitor is the heart of this story.

I enjoyed the subdued feel of "The Hunger Games." Still, I couldn't help wonder what a visionary director such as Terry Gilliam might have done with this material. Gilliam would not have created a PG-13 movie, most likely. But his twisted take on a world where kids kill one another in reality shows would have been interesting to watch.

Director Gary "Seabiscuit" Ross has in no way dropped the ball in "The Hunger Games." He's made a film that is epic, intimate and timely -- imagine the Kardashians with knives and bloodlust. Ross has also created a movie 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 story and characters first and special effects in second place. That's a welcome formula.