The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
This Panem-set prequel gives Coriolanus Snow an origin story that feels like an optional extra, rather than a necessary return, but the odds are in its cast's favour.
November 15, 2023
When children from Panem's first 12 districts are chosen to fight to the death, each year's unlucky kids conscripted into the bloodthirsty fray that gives The Hunger Games franchise its title, they aren't simply battling for survival. In this dystopian saga stemming from Suzanne Collins' novels, they're brawling to entertain the wealthy residents of the ruling Capitol — they're forced to submit to a display of power and control, too, and to demonstrate humanity's innate cruelty — all while waging war against perishing into nothingness. Arriving eight years after the series' last page-to-screen adaptation, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a swung sword, flung spear, hurled hatchet and jabbed knife in the same type of skirmish. This is a blockbuster franchise, but 2012's The Hunger Games, 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2014's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 and 2015's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 have long faded from the big screen, which virtually means no longer existing to Tinseltown, other than as fuel to relight the flame. So kicks in the "sequels, prequels, spinoffs, continuations, TV shows, remakes, reboots, reimaginings or perish" motto that may as well be etched onto the Hollywood sign.
Why The Hunger Games' battle royales exist, and what their purpose and substance are, prove topics of conversation more than once in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. A tale that features the person who created the games and the mind overseeing them — that'd be Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage, Cyrano) and Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, Air) — ought to ponder such notions. A jump back in time in a now five-entry franchise, and a chapter that runs for 157 minutes at that, couldn't leave it out. But a sense of nothingness still swirls around this picture, even if Collins did actually write a novel with a plot that justifies the movie's existence (unlike comparable shenanigans over in the Wizarding World, aka the Fantastic Beasts films). There's an insignificant air to this return trip to YA bleakness, as smacking of chasing cash and keeping IP bubbling in the popular consciousness was bound to inspire; this doesn't feel like a return or a bonus, but an optional extra.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is largely engaging as it's flickering. To spin its origin story for President Coriolanus Snow, who Donald Sutherland (Lawman: Bass Reeves) portrayed with such gleeful menace in the initial movies and Tom Blyth (Billy the Kid) plays now as a young man 64 years earlier, it enlists a compelling cast. And, although nowhere near as meticulously, smartly and affectingly, it convincingly enough attempts the Better Call Saul feat of getting its audience hoping for a different path for someone with a murky future already inescapably established thanks to its lead performance. In the dialogue, riffs on Corio's surname spark retorts like "snow lands on top" — bad puns and heavy-handed nudges towards past films don't serve The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes well — yet "snow dissolves" is the prevailing vibe. Coriolanus himself doesn't here and there's four past pictures to prove it, but for all his longevity and this feature's length, the picture dedicated to him isn't the lingering kind.
There's a prologue to this prequel, where a pint-sized Corio (Dexter Sol Ansell, Emmerdale Farm) and his cousin Tigris (debutant Rosa Gotzler) experience the horrors of Panem's nation-changing conflict firsthand, leaving only their grandma'am (Fionnula Flanagan, Smother) to be their guardian. When he's 18 and attending the Capitol's prestigious Academy, times are still tough for the remaining Snows, including the still-doting Tigris (Hunter Schafer, Euphoria); however, Coriolanus is a clever, savvy and determined fake-it-till-you-make-it type. As he dresses the part around his mostly snobby classmates, his hopes for college and security are all pinned on the scholarship-style Plinth Prize, which is usually awarded for academic excellence. But Highbottom and Gaul come bearing unforeseen news: in the tenth year of the country's kill-or-be-killed fights, with interest from the viewing masses lagging, the top students will be tasked with mentoring the games' tributes. Their assigned competitor winning won't guarantee them the prize, either; boosting the contest's status is just as important.
Having seen other Hunger Games entries, or read them, isn't a prerequisite for following The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Those who have will know the setup for the movie's first two thirds. Folks in that category will also spot the over-emphasised nods throughout the entire film to its Jennifer Lawrence (No Hard Feelings)-starring predecessors, to the point of wishing that you didn't. So, the reaping singles out the year's batch of doomed contenders, Corio is allocated District 12's Appalachian-accented underdog female recruit Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, Shazam! Fury of the Gods) and, of course, she proves more than the Capitol bargained for. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes makes good on its title by giving Lucy Gray a voice that can and frequently does carry a tune, which enamours her to everyone watching on. Her fellow gladiatorial competitors aren't impressed, especially with her public popularity.
Also in the been-there-done-that category: romantic sparks flying amid the life-or-death games, with The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes happy to enter Romeo and Juliet's arena. Betrayal, duplicity, political scheming, autocratic barbarism, an indictment of entertainment at its most sensational and a savaging of the constant push to attract eyeballs pop up expectedly, too, the latter with zero self-awareness about how The Hunger Games movies are now in that domain. Returning director Francis Lawrence, who helmed Catching Fire and both Mockingjay instalments, is workmanlike. Screenwriters Michael Lesslie (The Little Drummer Girl) and Michael Arndt (also returning from Catching Fire) draw upon Collins' source material in the same way. Accordingly, along with production design that looks the part, it's Blyth and company that make the most of the film.
As it tells its tale in three sections entitled 'The Mentor', 'The Prize' and 'The Peacekeeper' The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is never big on surprises, even when it heads to District 12 in its last chapter — but its stars are all in. If Blyth couldn't make Corio's vulnerability and kindness so resonant before it gives way to steeliness and ruthlessness, the film would suffer a fatal blow. If Zegler didn't shimmer with verve regardless of whether she's singing (chops already established in West Side Story), this Hunger Games entry's Hunger Games wouldn't muster up a second of tension. Tyrion Lannister might cast a shadow over Dinklage's Highbottom, but the Game of Thrones star has already demonstrated why that's a can't-look-away prospect. Davis is having a ball as the villainous head gamemaker, relish that's matched by Jason Schwartzman (Asteroid City) as always-on TV host Lucky Flickerman. Although the same can't always be said for the film around them — and definitely doesn't apply to bringing back the saga from nothingness — the odds are at least in this excellent cast's favour.
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