A shorthand review of "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes": Decent movie, wrong lead.
Based on the advertising, you'd think Rachel Zegler plays the main character, and there's a reason the studio might encourage that misconception: She's outstanding. The "West Side Story" breakout star plays rebellious bluegrass singer Lucy Gray Baird in "Songbirds & Snakes": She's the songbird and she also has a thing for snakes.
It's a prequel to "The Hunger Games," set 60 years earlier, when Lucy is thrust into the titular games with other young people, all of them fighting for their lives on a reality TV series that's sort of like "American Idol" with pitchforks instead of songs.
Zegler is one of those performers who establish an instant connection with the audience. Fiery, smart and able to hint at hidden wells of emotion, she was dynamite in "West Side Story" but "Songbirds" — in which she also sings several songs with horrendous lyrics — suggests she can do it all: comedy, action, romance, whatever.
Whenever "Songbirds" is with her, it's a lot of fun. But the main character is impoverished nobleman Coriolanus Snow, a younger version of the president played by Donald Sutherland in the other "Hunger Games" films. It's an origins story, essentially, establishing how Corio (yeah, awful nickname) began to shift from a principled young man who mentored and loved Lucy to a disillusioned tyrant with a thirst for power — and, to bright-side it, a better hairdo.
Corio is played by Tom Blyth, who has difficulty making an impression in a wig that appears to have been fashioned out of a broom. Also, how is it that he can't afford food but seems to have an unlimited budget for hair dye?
Blyth is fine but he's not charismatic enough to grab the center of the screen in a somewhat passive role, and he's overshadowed not just by Zegler but also by Jason Schwartzman as a soulless emcee similar to (and possibly the father of) the one Stanley Tucci played in the other movies, by Hunter Schafer as a vulnerable and empathetic relative of Corio's and by Josh Andrés Rivera (also a veteran of "West Side Story") as Corio's friend.
"Songbirds" has an enormous cast (Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis also pop in to spew evil) and I'm here for it. The adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel is divided into three sections, so it feels like three movies in one. It's ungainly, sure, when "Songbirds" keeps resetting itself but gamers are already familiar with that structure and it's much preferable to the ploy pulled by the most recent "Hunger Games," which was released as two separate, incomplete movies.
That tactic gave us less for our money, but "Songbirds" gives us more: plenty of action, humor and intrigue. The spectacle of young people slaughtering each other on live television feels even more problematic than when this series debuted (it's starker and more disturbing to watch than read). But, whereas many of these prequels feel like crass cash-ins, "Songbirds & Snakes" stands on its own as an absorbing story with a terrific new character, just to the left of the lead.
'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes'
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for violence and strong language.
Where: In theaters.