In 2012, 'The Hunger Games' was not only critically acclaimed; it was also the third highest grossing blockbuster of the year, coming in behind 'The Avengers' and 'The Dark Knight Rises.' This meant Francis Lawrence, who took over directing duties for the film series after Gary Ross bowed out, has an incredibly high bar to meet with the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' second novel in her trilogy, 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.' We're elated to report that he's created a sequel that is bigger, bolder and all around better than its solid predecessor, helped in part by an extraordinary cast and a lusher budget.

'Catching Fire' picks up with Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her hometown of District 12. Her prize money has set her and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) up in the posh Victor's Village. But her newfound wealth is little consolation for the trauma she's experienced that still throws her into waking nightmares. Worse yet, the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is still furious over her rebellious performance in last year's games.

Without meaning to, Katniss has become a symbol of hope to the oppressed people of Panem, and he would have her destroyed for it. So as the 75th Hunger Games (also called The Quarter Quell) approaches, Snow proposes a new sort-of all-star version of the kill-or-be-killed competition. And just like that, Peeta and Katniss are thrown back into the Games, but this time they know who the real enemy is. It's not their fellow tributes; it's the Capitol. A rebellion is brewing, and whether she's ready for it or not, Katniss is at its center.

With the complicated groundwork of the books' world already laid out in the first film, the director is free to dig deeper into character with 'Catching Fire.' He warmly plays with Katniss' guarded exterior in private moments with Peeta and confrontations with her less inhibited competitors, like the outspoken Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone) and the arrogant Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). Though the film is briskly paced, Francis Lawrence takes the time to let emotional moments breathe, creating several sequences that are profoundly affecting. Aside from tearing up, this critic got actual goosebumps.

These efforts at mining the story's emotional arc are made glorious by the impeccable ensemble cast. Jennifer Lawrence is once again heartbreaking as the Girl on Fire, whose rage at the Capitol and will to survive blind her to blossoming feelings of love and friendship. Hutcherson is once more perfectly charming as Peeta. Aside from welcomed scene-stealers Claflin and Malone, the supporting cast also boasts such outstanding players as Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Each of these performers deftly and vividly create their characters in a way that not only makes them memorable, but also paints the greater world of Panem, giving crucial setup for the forthcoming third film.

While the performances ground the emotional stakes of 'Catching Fire,' the battle scenes cement the grim trials ahead of Katniss. These games are no longer child's play. The other tributes are all older, and many of them are smarter, stronger or far more blood-thirsty than our heroine. The action sequences are thrilling, and well cut for tension and clarity. The bigger budget is evident and appreciated here. However, some of these scenes are too darkly lit to be able to make out who's doing what, which is especially hard to determine as the tributes all have the same uniforms.

Another place Lionsgate clearly laid down big money is on the film's costuming. In Collins' books, the characters' clothes were diligently described. And one of my critiques from 'The Hunger Games' was definitely that aside from flawless fashionista Effie (Banks), the costumes were generally underwhelming. But 'Catching Fire' gives fashion its due. There's a sharp contrast between the harsh leathers and cozy knits Katniss wears in District 12 and the elegant, transformative gowns she shows off in the Capitol. Here, the filmmakers not only utilize these eye-catching costumes to beautifully express character, but also as an element of sheer and unadulterated spectacle.

Ultimately, fans of the first film as well as lovers of the book series are sure to swoon over 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.' The filmmakers walk a fine line in being true to the spirit of the book and its story, while creating something visually striking and deeply poignant. It's rare to see a blockbuster that is this smart, moving and full of spectacle, much less to have all these elements blend so seamlessly. Essentially, 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is not just a great film, it's a blockbuster that will stand as an example to all others for years to come.

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ opens in theaters on Nov. 22.