Opening in theaters on November 17th is the long-awaited prequel to ‘The Hunger Games’ series entitled ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,’ which was directed by Francis Lawrence (‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2’).
‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is an entertaining prequel that dives deeper into the past of Donald Sutherland’s Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow (no played by Tom Blyth) and the history of the games but is surprisingly a musical at its core. Blyth and co-star Rachel Zegler give impressive performances, but the movie suffers from too many storylines and frivolous characters, resulting in the third act falling apart.
Story and Direction
Set 64-years before ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ begins by introducing us to a young Coriolanus Snow, played by Tom Blyth. Following the war, Snow’s family has fallen from grace in Panem and he is determined to rise through the ranks and return honor to his family name, no matter the cost. Attending the Academy and pretending to still be wealthy, Snow meets Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Hunger Games and his teacher, who seems to dislike Snow. The class is soon told that to graduate and win the “prize,” they must all be mentors in the 10th Annual Hunger Games.
The head game maker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) explains that the games are in danger of being cancelled and begins to implement some of Snow’s new ideas to make them more popular. But Snow is surprised when he is assigned tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, a traveling musician who is not afraid to take the spotlight. As Lucy and Snow learn to trust each other, the games begin, and that trust is tested. Eventually Snow must choose between his ambition and the life he imagines for himself and his family, and the feelings he has for Lucy.
Director Francis Lawrence certainly understands the world that author Suzanne Collins created in the pages of her books, having directed the last three films in the franchise including ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,’ ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,’ and ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.’ While the tone and feel of the movie is like his other work within the franchise, Lawrence really takes delight in showing us a more primitive society. This is Panem over sixty years before Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) appeared, and while it looks familiar it also looks new and fresh compared to what we’ve seen before.
The script does a good job of reintroducing us to Panem and explains Snow’s family history, as well as setting the stage for his eventual ascension. The movie also takes time to explore some ideas from the original series, using a few callbacks that fans will recognize, but none of it really distracts from the main story, which is Snow and Lucy’s relationship. Thanks, partly to the strong performances from the lead actors, that relationship is believable, and you are invested in the outcome, even if we already know that Snow breaks bad.
It’s Really a Musical!
One of the fun surprises of the film is that it is secretly a musical. But the music (and characters breaking into song) never feels forced and instead is tied to the story. Remember, Lucy Baird is a musical performer, which gives her an extra edge in this version of the games, and therefore explains why there is so much music in the movie. Obviously, ‘West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler was up to the task, and her musical performances are some of the best sequences in the movie. It also helps endear her character to the audience early on, so we are rooting for her once the games begin. Again, the musical numbers all make sense and do not distract from the rest of the movie, but rather makes the film standout instead of just being another prequel to a popular franchise.
Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler
While Rachel Zegler was uniquely qualified to play Lucy Baird given the actress’ musical skills, she also creates a loving, brave and extremely likable character that we root for throughout, even if she is doing a bit of a Dolly Parton impression. The sparks between Lucy and Snow are undeniable from the moment they meet, and while we know Snow’s ultimate outcome, we still root for the couple nonetheless because of the two actors’ wonderful chemistry together.
For his part, actor Tom Blyth probably had the most difficult role, humanizing a beloved villain, and filling the shoes of the great Donald Sutherland to make the two performances over the entire series seamless. Blyth, best known for playing the title character on ‘Billy the Kid,’ has a magnetic quality and absolutely nails the role. He’s completely believable as a young Snow, and yet you also accept him as his own character. While Zegler’s performance is the heart of the movie, Blyth really carries the film on his own throughout and gives a very impressive performance. Blyth has “movie star” written all over him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the actor appear in more franchise movies in the future.
The Rest of the Cast
Like most films in this franchise, the movie has a huge cast so I can’t name everyone, but I will say that I was impressed with the diverse cast of young actors that were chosen including Hunter Schafer and Sofia Sanchez, who are both standouts. Peter Dinklage is also very good as Snow’s advisor Casca Highbottom. The role has Casca at odds with Snow through most of the film, with his true intentions being revealed by the end, making for an interesting dynamic between the two characters.
But not all the performances worked for me. Viola Davis, who is unarguably one of the best actors working in movies today, is so over-the-top in her performance as Volumnia Gaul, it just took me out of the movie. I know that ‘Hunger Games’ characters can be flamboyant and eccentric, but she seemed more like she was channeling Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It was just too much and didn’t seem like a real character.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for Jason Schwartzman, an actor I generally like, playing Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman. The character is the first TV host of the Hunger Games and assumed to be some relation to Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) from the original series. While I’m sure Schwartzman based his performance in some way on Tucci’s, and of course was taking his cues from the script, again, the character seemed too over-the-top, even for this franchise, and was not believable in the end.
Problems with the Third Act
My biggest problem with the movie was the third act, which felt unnecessary and more like an epilogue or something that you would save for a sequel. We’ve come to expect that ‘Hunger Games’ movies usually end when the games are over and we have a clear winner, but that’s not the case with ‘The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.’ In fact, the film has another 30-45 minutes after that, and it begins to drag because the main story we are invested in, “Will Lucy survive the games?” has already ended. It seems like the movie would have benefited from 20-30 minutes being cut and saving the third act, which is basically Snow’s decision to be a villain, for a sequel.
Will Katniss be in ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?’
The short answer is no. Since the movie is set over sixty years before the events of the original series, Katniss Everdeen hasn’t even been born yet. So, don’t expect Jennifer Lawrence to show up. However, the movie does leave several Easter Eggs, many of which take place in Katniss’ home of District 12. While I won’t give away too many, I will say that the Mockingjays do play a role.
In the end, ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is a worthy prequel and a justifiable continuation of the franchise. Its musical format is refreshing, and fans of the original series will enjoy returning to Panem and discovering Snow’s backstory. Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler’s strong performances and great chemistry together help carry the film, but with a third act that seems disjointed from the main story, the movie eventually falls under its own weight.
‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ receives 7.5 out of 10 stars.
What is the plot of ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’?
Years before he would become the tyrannical President of Panem, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is the last hope for his fading lineage, a once-proud family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With the 10th annual Hunger Games fast approaching, the young Snow is alarmed when he is assigned to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute from impoverished District 12. But, after Lucy Gray commands Panem’s attention by defiantly singing during the reaping ceremony, Snow thinks he might be able to turn the odds in their favor. Uniting their instincts for showmanship and newfound political savvy, Snow and Lucy Gray’s race against time to survive will ultimately reveal who is a songbird, and who is a snake.