The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: November 20th, 2023

It has been eight years since director Francis Lawrence released Mockingjay Part 2, the second half of the bifurcated film that wrapped up Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. Although the fourth movie in that series was the weakest entry, Lawrence also helmed the best, Catching Fire. Taken altogether, The Hunger Games represented one of the best adaptations of dystopian YA fiction from the early 2010s. So why make another movie (and a prequel at that) nearly a decade later? Is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes merely a money-grab or is there something more? While I'm pretty sure Lionsgate bankrolled the project in the hope that another title under the Hunger Games umbrella might be profitable, the production is of comparable quality to the earlier releases even if its need to exist is questionable.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes transpires 64 years before the first chapter of Katniss Everdeen's saga and details key events in the rise to power of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the villainous president who was played as an old man by Donald Sutherland. In his late teens, the scion of the prestigious Snow family (and son of the Hunger Games' co-creator) is ambitious and becomes one of the mentors involved in the 10th edition of the annual contest. He is assigned to one of District 12's tributes, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Coriolanus develops feelings for Lucy - feelings that are intensified when she saves his life during a terrorist bomb attack on the Hunger Games arena. Determined that she should survive, he cheats to give her advantages in the games, including giving her a compact containing rat poison and scouting the location ahead of time to provide her with a tactical advantage. Although Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) is impressed by Coriolanus, the 18-year-old mentor earns the spite of his father's partner, Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage).

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is presented in three chapters and runs in excess of 150 minutes. The first part contains a lot of background and exposition and is the most difficult portion to slog through. The second segment is the most action-oriented, focusing on the games. The third takes events in a potentially unexpected direction, amplifying a theme about the dark side of human nature.

Having the Hunger Games conclude while there's still almost an hour of story remaining opens the movie up to criticisms of an anticlimactic resolution but I found the final third to be the most interesting part of the narrative. It takes a dark turn and makes some unconventional choices with respect to character development and relationship building. I suppose these aren't necessarily surprising when one considers the bigger picture but, within the context of this single movie, they break with tropes.

Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler give workmanlike performances but neither is a standout. Blyth bears a resemblance to a young Ryan Gosling but his acting isn't quite on the same level. Although Zegler is given an opportunity to use her singing voice, her work here isn't as noteworthy as her breakthrough turn in West Side Story. Viola Davis enjoys hamming it up and chewing on scenery as the primary villain but Peter Dinklage tones down those tendencies to present a more subdued bad guy.

The problem with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it doesn't appreciably add to what we already have. This is extraneous information that will be of interest primarily to fans. At over 2 ½ hours long, it feels indulgent but also seems to have been made with more in mind than churning out another franchise entry. And, despite the eventual outcome being preordained, there are a few surprises and unexpected twists. If someone was going to make a Hunger Games prequel, this is about the best one might hope for.

© 2023 James Berardinelli