Dark, complex, and grounded, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes gives new life to the Hunger Games franchise.
Even for a franchise film that cost only $100 million to make before marketing costs, it’s still a bold risk to take in the post-COVID movie world for a franchise that has all but disappeared from the pop culture landscape shortly after the last film in the franchise released in 2015. Think about it. Crafting a two hour and 40-minute prequel that has no legitimate star power (sorry, Viola Davis) almost a decade after the last film in the franchise was universally panned has all the makings for a disaster. Not to be corny, but was there a hunger for this franchise to return? We shall see soon enough if general audiences speak with their wallets this weekend. Regardless, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes turns out to be quite a surprise. Making a case for arguably the best film in the entire franchise, this prequel is much darker, more character-driven than previous entries in the franchise. Going beyond the simple premise of its previous entries that asked, “Who will win?” a game that pits children and young adults in a fight to the death in an arena, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes blends a great mixture of drama, storytelling, and action that show the complexity of its characters and their richly-filled world that people have come to know and love from author Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed series of books.
Taking place about 60 years before Katniss became tribute in the Hunger Games, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes us to the dystopian world of Panem where the 10th annual Hunger Games are about to begin. However, viewership is down for the annual event, and head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and intellectual author of the games Cas Highbottorm (Peter Dinklage) need to change things up. They decide to have students of The Academy (where children of the wealthy and powerful who live in The Capitol) become tied to the selected tributes for the Hunger Games. By becoming mentors to the tributes, they must help guide their tributes to help win the Hunger Games so that the mentor can receive fame and glory for their achievement. This particular Hunger Games is where we see the rise of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) begin to take place long before he became the tyrannical leader of Panem years later. In mentoring tribute Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler), who has nothing more to lose than what she’s endured in her own district of Panem, we see a much different side of Snow that ultimately shapes him years later.
Split into three parts, the film covers a lot throughout its lengthy runtime. However, you don’t need to have seen any of the other films in the Hunger Games franchise to know how the world of Panem operates. Standing on its own feet, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes shows us all sides of the conflict between the wealthy living in the Capitol, its suffering districts, and the people that run the Hunger Games. Of course, we get to see the games in action and those scenes are thrilling and violent. But it’s the scenes in between the action where we get to see a certain degree of complexity of the main cast of characters, with morals going beyond duties they’re assigned based on their statuses, and where every action or reaction has a consequence, and the characters at play are in a constant battle that extends beyond an annual game that results in the death of almost all tributes. To put it in simpler terms, you don’t see this type of layered character study in most other franchises, and that’s something to really appreciate here, especially with where we find the main character Coriolanus Snow at the film’s beginning and at film’s end.
Playing Coriolanus Snow is 28-year-old actor Tom Blyth, and if he wasn’t on studio’s radars for future films, he will be going forward thanks to his outstanding performance as the young mentor here. Shown in most scenes of the film, Blyth takes hold of the famed role with poise. Though we eventually know where his character ends up later in life as a source of evil, there’s a surprising level of sincerity and innocence with the character from his early beginnings that the film shows throughout, and you feel for the character; Blyth shows those emotions perfectly. It also helps that he has a great co-lead whom he has instant chemistry with in Rachel Zegler, who continues to show us how promising a young actress she is, despite the internet being hateful towards here for no concrete reason. In addition to these two leading the film, it helps that they have such accomplished (and great) actors to guide them throughout, including Violas Davis, Peter Dinklage, and the always likeable Jason Schwartzman.
It’s understandable that people may have written this franchise off after the last film (myself included). But you might come out surprised like I was to find this prequel as engaging as it is, and a film that stands on its own among the franchise entries. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes offers no hope for its viewers but invites people to return or arrive for the first time into a world that has more intrigue, twists, and characters worth investing their time in than they might expect. Becoming one of the best franchise films in recent memory, this film will fill your appetite for moviegoing around the Thanksgiving holiday. Just don’t be surprised that the film is quite dark.