Adapted from Suzanne Collins’ books of the same name and sequel to last year’s The Hunger Games, Catching Fire impresses with the right ambience (the next book is the last part of a trilogy and is also being split into two films).

This one is just better put together: the budget is almost twice that of its prequel ($130 million) giving the film a boost in VFX, and it has got to do with the new guy in the director’s seat — Francis Lawrence — who treats life in the dystopian future with effective pace. The other thing is that Catching Fire hits all the emotional buttons just right, especially when compared to the emotional disconnect of The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire starts with Katniss back at home in District 12 in Panem, a totalitarian future America. She now has a better house and clothes, but suffers from the traumatic scars she carried over from her time in the Hunger Games arena. The effect is so powerful that Katniss can’t even hunt right — the one thing she was remarkable at. When she shoots an arrow for a turkey dinner, she instead sees a boy she shot in the last film. Soon, she starts shivering and breaks down in the forest. Indeed, surviving The Hunger Games death match event (a reminder of the Panem government’s unflinching cruelty and a means of mass entertainment for the rich) can take a toll on a person’s state of mind.

Along for the ride is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) her district’s other survivor who is still forced to continue the ruse of being her soul mate. The rich people of the Capitol love them and the same goes for the impoverished underclasses of the other 12 districts, who look at Katniss as the girl who stood up to the powers that be. This spark of rebellion doesn’t sit well with the dictator-like President Snow (a sneering Donald Sutherland), who makes them a political target.

Both of them, along with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), are turned into a government-run PR machine; they are sent on a round trip from district to district hailing Panem and President Snow’s fake good points from cue cards supplied by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks who, beside her oompaloompa hairdo and toffee wrapper-like clothes and make up, has refreshing likeability in this film).

In the interim, because Katniss slowly becomes a living symbol, the President makes plans to kick her off the land of the living. The plan, of course, is to do that without making a martyr of her and this leads to new Hunger Games. This time the locale is an island with previous winners regardless of age, facing perils as diverse as poisonous fogs, rampaging baboons and a lagoon custom made to create a tsunami once a day.

Almost the entire cast does a better job in Catching Fire. Lawrence is finally more awake than last time, Hutcherson is more mature and not to be forgotten is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, sporting golden make-up! Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, the gaudy showman host, is as despicable as last time, though he doesn’t have much to do in Catching Fire. New to the cast is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, the new game maker, who fluctuates between good to sleep walking in some of his scenes.

With a solid grip on the story by writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, and the competent hand of Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a good start to the upcoming vacation’s season rush.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is released by Lionsgate and is rated PG-13. There is less violence against children as it now targets the old and wrinkly too (watch the film to find out how).