Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes emerges as an energetic prelude to the Hunger Games saga. Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler star in an eerie return to Panem as the framework for the original franchise is set amidst turmoil and revolts. The movie boasts one of the best ensemble casts of 2023.
In the cinematic revival of the Hunger Games universe, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes plunges audiences 64 years into the past, exploring the rise of President Coriolanus Snow, portrayed with conviction by Tom Blyth. The film, based on the prequel young adult novel, seeks to unravel the origins of the Panem we’ve come to know, through a nuanced portrayal of a character previously seen only as the primary antagonist. The film, once again directed by Francis Lawrence (the filmmaker responsible for every entry besides the original), managed to defy my initial reservations, delivering a thoughtful and engaging exploration of the early days of The Hunger Games.
Upon entering the theater, my skepticism loomed about revisiting Panem’s dystopia after an eight-year hiatus. The franchise had concluded on a sputtering, lackluster note, prompting questions about the necessity of rekindling the Hunger Games narrative. However, the allure of a great cast and an intriguing trailer ignited my curiosity, sparking hope for a fresh perspective on the original concept. As the opening moments rolled in, it became evident that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would manage to breathe new life into the saga, serving a tantalizing feast of politics and violence set against the tumultuous aftermath of war.
The film unfolds during the 10th Hunger Games, with Coriolanus Snow serving as the mentor to Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12, portrayed by the rising star Rachel Zegler. In the wake of diminishing public interest and declining TV ratings, Head Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis with demonic vigor) tasks Capital students with reinventing the Hunger Games, transforming it into a marketable and publicized event. The seeds of innovation are planted in Coriolanus’ mind as he endeavors to enhance public participation by introducing novel concepts such as tribute sponsorship and increased pre-Games TV exposure.
The film’s first half is a triumph, showcasing meticulous world-building that seamlessly integrates with the original franchise. Set in the untamed era of Panem, the narrative captures the Capital’s struggle to establish order and stability, resembling the Wild West in its uncertainty. Unexpected events, unbound by the constraints of prior lore, inject fresh energy into the story, leaving even those unfamiliar with the source material clamoring to see what new ideas they’ll instill in this world.
But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is an odd paradox of pacing, bearing an ambitious 157-minute runtime. The classic Hunger Games story structure dominates the initial half, only for the Games to conclude abruptly, marking a pivot towards the unraveling psyche of Coriolanus Snow. As the film meanders through Coriolanus’ stint as a Peacekeeper in District 12, the pacing falters, and the runtime becomes noticeable after the initial rush of energy.
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Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the exuberant Games announcer, injects vitality into the narrative’s early stages. However, his absence following the conclusion of the Games coincides with the film’s dip in momentum. Rachel Zegler, as Lucy Gray, embodies peppy innocence juxtaposed with a disdain for arrogance. While not pushing the boundaries of her established abilities, Zegler seamlessly immerses herself in her character, demonstrating her rising star power.
Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Casca Highbottom, the remorseful creator of the Hunger Games, and Hunter Schafer’s performance as Tigris, Coriolanus’ optimistic cousin, round out the stellar cast. Collectively, they become the film’s highlight, compensating for its pacing shortcomings and uneven structure.
But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes still emerges as a nuanced and energetic prelude to the Hunger Games saga. By unraveling the roots of power in Panem, the film injects vitality into a franchise that appeared to be on the decline. Despite pacing issues and a divergence in energy between the two halves, the film stands as a compelling adaptation in the young adult genre, breathing life into a story thought to have concluded.
In this complex exploration of power, morality, and the origins of tyranny, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes successfully reanimates a dystopian world, offering fans and newcomers alike a fresh perspective on the legacy of The Hunger Games franchise.
Watch The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in theaters
Film Cast and Credits
Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow
Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird
Hunter Schafer as Tigris Snow
Jason Schwartzman as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman
Peter Dinklage as Casca Highbottom
Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul
Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Editor: Mark Yoshikawa
Composer: James Newton Howard