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Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for "The Hunger Games" prequel movie.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is the weakest installment of the franchise.
Peter Dinklage and Jason Schwartzman give the best performances. Act three feels like a separate movie.
No amount of lovely melodies from Rachel Zegler can save the new "Hunger Games" movie.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" ("TBoSS") is the longest entry in the five-film franchise at two hours and 45 minutes. It's also the weakest.
From returning director Francis Lawrence, "TBoSS" rewinds 64 years before Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute in the annual battle that sees children fighting to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy Capitol of Panem. The prequel focuses on the rise of her eventual nemesis, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) long before his tyrannical rule as president.
Here, we're to empathize with a poor, teenage Snow as he vies for a monetary school prize to secure enrollment in college and restore glory to his impoverished family. All he has to do is mentor one of the tributes in the 10th Hunger Games and see them to victory. Easier said than done.
A wrench is thrown in his lofty, self-serving ambitions when he's paired with a long shot, District 12's alluring singer Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler). Snow finds himself falling for the mysterious songbird who he fears may be toying with his emotions to survive.
Though the movie successfully hits the over-500-page book's broad strokes, in doing so, it results in an overstuffed, hollowed-out adaptation that plays more like two movies than one by the time it gets to its third act.
The movie is a hollow adaptation, with little effort put into its many characters
Split into three parts like its source material, "TBoSS" was always going to be a challenging adaptation. At 100 pages longer than any other "Hunger Games" book, there's simply too much material to satisfactorily adapt into one movie without whizzing past something important.
Simultaneously, there's not enough story in part three to justify breaking this into two pictures (something Lawrence considered). Instead, we're left with a movie and a half.
The first chunk of the prequel flies by as it largely follows the beats of the first two "Hunger Games" movies, including some impressive camera work when the arena is on full display. The entire third act, which Lawrence told Insider was the trickiest section to adapt, may as well be part of a different production as it offers up a mini adventure about what happens to Snow afterward.
Despite its nearly three-hour runtime, the movie feels rushed, barely taking time to flesh out characters outside of Snow, Lucy Gray, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), and Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). By not developing any of the larger ensemble of mentors and acquaintances of Lucy Gray, the movie lacks the emotional weight of the other "Hunger Games" movies, which spend vastly more time getting audiences to invest in characters like Haymitch and Prim.
But the biggest letdown is the movie's failure to properly introduce the Hunger Games tributes, one of the points of watching the franchise. Ironically, the movie knows this. Early on, Snow advises that the gamemakers need to get their audience invested in individual tributes to boost overall interest in The Hunger Games.
As a result, when the tourney begins, we're left watching empty violence as kids butcher one another for survival. Efforts to include a diverse group of actors in these roles, like amputee actor Knox Gibson, go wasted as they barely receive screen time.
Davis, Dinklage, and Schwartzman are standouts
From a new rendition of "The Hanging Tree" to "Pure as the Driven Snow," Zegler's vocals enchant in five songs, but the character remains a mystery outside of her musical moments since her family and ex are barely included.
Instead, three other stars carry "TBoSS."
Davis delivers a calculating, cutthroat presence as the head gamemaker. Her take on the mad scientist is a massive upgrade from Book Gaul, who comes across as cartoonish, starting every introduction with a silly rhyme.
Dinklage gives a deeply nuanced performance as a tormented gamemaker addicted to painkillers. Watching the film through Highbottom's lens delivers a heartbreaking, fully realized arc that benefits from repeat viewings. Initially presented as a mean-spirited, drunken dean with a massive chip on his shoulder toward Snow, it becomes apparent that he's yet another conflicted, guilt-ridden puppet of the Capitol.
But it's Schwartzman as an overzealous amateur magician and first host of The Hunger Games broadcast who steals the movie. Perfectly cast to resemble an ancestor of Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the hilariously tone-deaf dingbat incites several laughs, by rescheduling dinner reservations and making insensitive observations at the expense of tributes and mentors (he refers to one tribute as "tuberculosis on legs").
Jaw-dropping book reveals don't hit as hard in the adaptation
In the book, so much of "TBoSS" takes place in Snow's head where readers learn he's judgmental, paranoid, and conniving despite his charismatic outward appearance. Here, Blyth's portrayal of Snow should be more of a two-faced Draco Malfoy-type, but he ultimately comes off as charming, even quite likable in some parts. By axing the inner monologue, the adaptation creates massive shifts in the perception of his relationships.
The movie makes Snow and Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), a student who wasn't born into money like others in the Capitol, appear the best of friends. But the book makes it clear Snow considers Sejanus little more than a strategic acquaintance who he disdains for not appreciating his status. That vital tidbit's lost in the adaptation. Movie Snow also barely seems affected by the thought of Lucy's ex, while Book Snow's paranoia and envy fester under his skin until it bubbles over, putting him on par with Joe from "You."
As a result of Snow's more likable personality on-screen, big reveals in the third act barely pack a punch. An abrupt character turn is unearned, almost random, and a new line of Lucy Gray dialogue appears to slightly vilify its heroine to make Snow more sympathetic.
Snow may always land on top, but this movie doesn't. Stick with the book.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" hits theaters on November 17.
Read the original article on Insider