November 17, 2023
Review: 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes' Sizzles at the Start, Fizzles by the Finale
Derek Deskins READ TIME: 3 MIN.
In the "Hunger Games" novel trilogy (and film quadrilogy), President Corialanus Snow is the primary antagonist. Initially, he is little more than an autocratic figurehead, but as the story of Katniss Everdeen unfolds, he is revealed to be exceedingly sadistic and arguably psychopathic. In "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," we are shown a youthful Snow in an attempt to understand how a villain is made.
Set 64 years before the events of "The Hunger Games," "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" presents a Panem that is only vaguely familiar. With the end of the The First Rebellion only 10 years in the rearview, the bombast of the Capitol and, relatedly, The Hunger Games, is far more reserved.
Corialanus "Coryo" Snow (Tom Blyth), at this point an Academy student of just 18 years, is still feeling the war's reverberations. His family fortune a thing of the past, Snow desires to provide for his family and craves the power that they once held. In a new development for the Hunger Games' 10th year, tributes are assigned Capitol mentors, with the promise that the most successful mentor will be awarded a large cash prize. In District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird, Coryo sees his chance to climb.
Stakes are particularly difficult to establish in a prequel. Ultimately, we know how this will all work out. Anakin will become Vader, Pearl is a murderer, and Cruella will want to skin puppies. "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is no different; we all know that regardless of how cute or kind-hearted Snow is portrayed by Tom Blyth, he will eventually become a murderous Donald Sutherland. Thankfully, for two-thirds of its runtime, "TBoSS" decides to disregard this looming expectation, a choice that the film is better for.
In the film's front two-thirds, it is focused far more on establishing this past world of Panem and the Capitol, introducing us to the many characters littered throughout. While technically the protagonist, Coryo is often merely a supporting player in his own film. This isn't a failing of Blyth, but instead of the script which writes Coryo somewhat thinly. He sits in the shadows of many actors enjoying themselves far more than he is.
Rachel Zegler is a pillar of charisma as Lucy Gray Baird. The role leans hard on Zegler's vocal talents, but she gracefully floats through many of the film's more dour elements. She is truly the only tribute granted any kind of development, and although the part is broad, Zegler is a joy to watch. Similarly delightful is Jason Schwartzman's Lucky Flickerman, Capitol weatherman, amateur magician, and first host of The Hunger Games. Schwartzman volleys between hammy and subtle, turning in a performance that is perpetually enjoyable. But truly, they all pale when alongside the incomparable Viola Davis as the mad scientist/head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. No one is having as much fun as Davis, as she chews up every last bit of scenery with a performance that would make Nicolas Cage proud.
As well-executed and captivating as the story of the 10th Hunger Games is, "TBoSS" starts to fall apart as soon as a victor is crowned. The farther from the Capitol the film moves, the less interesting it becomes. In the film's final third, it remembers that it needs to depict Coryo's psychotic downfall and rise to power, and then kind of mails it in. Coryo's actions become divorced from the character that we've come to know, in devoted service to the plot. It's a heel turn so massive as to give the audience whiplash. The film becomes an entirely different, and far less intriguing, movie.
"The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" has an understandably daunting task of spinning an interesting story while also presenting a meaningful villain origin. It manages to succeed halfway. For much of the runtime, "TBoSS" is a worthwhile addition to "The Hunger Games" cinematic tradition. Populated with captivating characters, entertaining performances, and exciting action, it succeeds more than it misses on a far shorter timeframe than its predecessors. However, when it attempts to be meaningful to the larger "Hunger Games" universe, it struggles, feeling rushed and empty. "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is two-thirds of a crowd-pleasing grand adventure that gets bogged down by the obligations of being a prequel.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is in theaters November 17.