The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes has little bite
The Hunger Games series was at the forefront of the young adult boom in the 2000s and 2010s, one where popular book series like Harry Potter and Twilight were used to launch movie franchises. With then-rising star Jennifer Lawrence as the lead, the four films would make almost $3 billion, making it one of the highest grossing movie franchises of all time.
With that kind of money at stake, it was only a matter of when, not if, there would be a return to the story’s world of Panem. Author Suzanne Collins released a prequel book in 2020, and now that has been turned into a movie, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.
It focuses on a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the future president of Panem who, when we meet him, is struggling to maintain the impression that he and his family still belong among the upper crust in the Capitol, having lost much of their wealth following the deaths of his parents.
Assigned to be a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games, Corio (as his friends call him) recognizes an opportunity when his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) of District 12, shows defiance when she’s chosen to participate, singing a type of protest song. Corio conspires to do everything in his power to help Lucy Gray during the Games, even if it means bending more than a few rules.
Directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, the film has the echoes of elements that fans enjoyed about the original trilogy, but it is unable to recapture that magic. The story attempts to establish Corio as a sympathetic figure, and it does to a degree, but none of the characters around him stand out in any way, leaving him on an island without much support.
The arrival of Lucy Gray (and, yes, that mouthful of a name is how she’s called throughout) adds some intrigue, and even though the film does all it can to establish a bond between Corio and Lucy Gray, the surrounding storylines never match their energy. One’s enjoyment of the film depends a lot on your foreknowledge about the intricacies of The Hunger Games, as the filmmakers give few people outside of the stars much to do.
The film is broken up into three chapters meant to denote Corio’s evolving story, but he’s ultimately not a compelling enough personality on which to hang the entire film. They try to introduce some villainous characters into the story, including gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and mentor coordinator Dean Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), but they’re all so over-the-top that it’s difficult to work up any actual enmity toward them.
Blyth is a British actor who has a stoic nature that works for one aspect of his character, but like his character, he doesn’t have quite enough talent to be the leading man. Zegler is saddled with a distracting country accent and a weird need to have the actress best known for her role as Maria in the recent West Side Story sing throughout. Other actors vary between bland to overdramatic, with only stars like Davis, Dinklage, and Jason Schwartzmann leaving any kind of impression.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a thoroughly mediocre (and overlong, at 2 hours and 37 minutes) return to the world of The Hunger Games, with the only saving grace being that it’s a one-off event with no current plans for more films. And thank goodness, as the central characters are not ones worth returning to at any point in the future.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes opens in theaters on November 17.