Most prequel movies fall victim to the same trap. You know what happens to the characters in the story already, so the events of the film are almost pointless. Thankfully, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes manages to avoid this – for the most part, at least. Directed by Francis Lawrence, who directed the previous three films in The Hunger Games franchise, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes follows the antagonist of the original movies, Coriolanus Snow. Snow is played by Tom Blyth (Billy the Kid), and his story sets him up to be a tragic villain.
Snow – along with other students in the Academy – is tasked with mentoring one of the 24 tributes from each District, for the 10th Hunger Games. Snow’s tribute is a girl from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Baird is played by Rachel Zegler (West Side Story). At first, Snow helps Lucy promote herself to the Capitol for his own sake, to win the prize promised to him and lift his family out of poverty. But he quickly falls in love with Baird and stops at nothing to help her win the Games.
(Mostly) New Story, (Mostly) New Characters
Along with Baird and Snow, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes introduces a cast of new characters, including the villainous gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, played by Viola Davis (Fences), the dean of the Academy and the creator of the Hunger Games Casca Highbottom, played by Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), and the host of the Games Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, played by Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited). All three of these actors are excellent in their roles. Davis is downright terrifying, Dinklage mimics his Game of Thrones performance, while Schwartzman’s comedic timing makes him a hilarious, albeit a little absurd, comic relief.
Most of the actors who play the tributes also nail their roles. Several of the group brought a sense of desperation, while others had much more solemn performances. This nailed down any empathy that we felt for the characters. Josh Andrés Rivera (West Side Story) plays Sejanus Plinth, another mentor, who is a rebel sympathizer. His character was annoying, and his story was predictable, but he gave a fine performance. While Snow’s story was more interesting, his character was less compelling.
For the most part, Blyth wasn’t given that much to do. Because Baird is supposed to be the emotional centerpiece of this movie, Zegler had much more to work with. Her vocal performances were also great, but not quite as tearjerking as the film portrays them. It also felt like her accent slipped throughout the movie, but it didn’t detract from the performance. Zegler played the heart of the film well, and because of her and Blyth’s ability, I was suckered into rooting for the couple. But Blyth’s stiff performance kept that in check by reminding me he was a villain.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes Feels Familiar
If you were expecting The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes to differ from The Hunger Games substantially, you will be disappointed. However, the fact that it is similar, isn’t a hindrance. We see how members from the other districts are treated, this time from within the Capitol, through the eyes of Capitol citizens. We see that life in the Capitol isn’t ideal for everybody either, although the other districts do have it worse. It doesn’t feel like this film relies on the originals to bring up feelings of injustice when it comes to the story. Instead, it creates new fires that inform the eventual rebellion.
It is The Hunger Games, so we need to talk about the Games themselves. They were a thrilling, but short part of the film. Because they take place more than 60 years before the Games in the first film, they are far less advanced. The action scenes were intense, and the finale was a glorious spectacle. The score by James Newton Howard helped build tension before the Games, and without it, the opening scene of the Games wouldn’t have been as thrilling.
Unfortunately, the film is let down by the ending. Snow is not much of a compelling character because we know he’s the villain of Katniss’s story 60 years after the events of this film. So when he does finally turn, it’s a tad sad to see the man we’ve seen throughout the film, turn into the villain he becomes. It results in a brief moment of empathy for the character before he’s ultimately resigned to his fate in the eyes of the audience.
A Good Time Nonetheless
While it’s clear that The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a film in The Hunger Games franchise, it never stays too predictable. Two or three moments caught me off guard, and the film made for quite an entertaining ride, but the last 20 minutes are disappointing. It ends without any satisfaction. Sure, we’ve seen Snow turn into the man who becomes President of Panem, but we aren’t left with much else of substance.
The movie is also paced unevenly. We spend what feels like an eternity with Baird and Blyth, and while it lengthens the already lengthy 158-minute movie, it ingratiates the characters with the audience. But, this works against it when it abruptly ends, as there isn’t much of a payoff for all of that character development. Ultimately, there’s much to enjoy with The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, while a few elements – story issues, a stiff performance, and pacing irregularities – weigh the movie down.
Still, this is one of the better movies in The Hunger Games franchise, and if you liked the original films or are a fan of the series, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to see this in a theater. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is in theaters from November 17, 2023.