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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Despite its flaws later on, the Hunger Games franchise is back, and fans of the books should be happy to see a surprisingly solid prequel in the series.
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The days of book-to-screen adaptations of young-adult dystopian franchises in the last decade are long gone. Most have failed to leave a memorable mark on people who read the source text. But after "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" wrapped up their respective franchises, it was no secret "The Hunger Games" came out on top as a global phenomenon for Lionsgate. These big-screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins's best-selling novels, which were released from 2012 to 2015, brought the world of Panem to life and made Katniss Everdeen a cinematic heroine. Of them, 2013's "Catching Fire" stands out as the best; it's significantly better than the original, which is still good.
But just when we thought things ended, it was only a matter of time for prequel talks, which we got with "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes," based on the best-selling 2020 novel. The prequel concept only sometimes appeals to me, even though I have read none of the books but have liked the prior three movies at least. However, there's more to enjoy about this movie than I had anticipated, even if the conclusion isn't as thrilling as one may have hoped.
Set sixty-four years before he becomes the president of Panem and ten years after the Great Civil War of the Capitol, the focus is on 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who remains the last hope for his fading lineage, hoping to secure a scholarship to help out. But just when he thought he had the Plinth Prize in the bag, there’s been a change this year, as dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the man behind the games, puts it before the 10th Annual Hunger Games.
The yearly games haven’t drawn tons of audiences watching. So, instead of awarding the prize to the student with the best grades, they will have to show which tribute will entertain the most and keep them alive at the end of the games. For Snow, he's to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the female tribute from District 12, who sparked immediate attention after performing a song during the reaping ceremony. Uniting their instincts for showmanship and political savvy, who knows if the odds will be in anyone’s favor.
After helming three of the four entries in the series—"Catching Fire" and both "Mockingjay" films—Francis Lawrence returns to the franchise. It was good to have someone familiar with the area like him bring us back to a time when their world was very different from when they were first introduced while maintaining the same tone. Early on, they disregarded their worry of wondering if they would simply recreate the formula of the original. In addition to seeing the Capitol from a more traditional viewpoint with less ostentatious architecture and attire, we are also learning more about what occurs behind closed doors and what it says about power dynamics in society and the defection of good people from evil.
Is it possible to pursue an investment with a villain like Snow? Only some will, but shockingly, you find yourself drawn into his origin, mainly because of Tom Blyth's fantastic portrayal. Like many, I had no clue who this actor was when we heard he would play a younger version of the character Donald Sutherland plays in the other films. It’s not always easy to understand how a person with hatred started the opposite since we’ve seen that kind of development done dozens of times, yet Blyth knows how to bring layers to Snow, showcasing his ambition in who he wants to become.
But what made him have a sudden change of heart? Or what turned him into the ruthless Panem leader we witness in the later movies? Blyth’s Snow demonstrates a strong desire to uphold his family's reputation. When he suggests certain changes to improve the games so that spectators may genuinely care about the tributes, we witness an unexpected side of him to humanize.
Zegler is once more a rising star, having given another exceptional performance as Lucy Gray in her repertoire. She and Blyth had the chemistry I didn't think would work based on casting, but the more time they spent together before the games, the more you felt that something wouldn't work out. You can see this mentorship as a way for him to continue his father’s legacy or have feelings for Lucy Gray he didn’t expect. Besides being from District 12, this character—who comes across as the performer for the cameras—doesn't turn into another Katniss. Even better, she gets to sing with that amazing voice, even though choosing to adopt a Southern accent is a choice.
And with the supporting performances, they memorably fit into this world. Has Viola Davis ever been terrible in anything she has been in? Not that I know of, and as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the game-maker, she embodies this role in a menacing and near campy way. Let Davis do whatever she wants, and we have no problems.
You also have the likes of Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth, a classmate of Snow who disagrees with what the Hunger Games represents; Hunter Schafer as Tigris, Coriolanus’s cousin; and Dinklage as mentioned earlier. Plus, who doesn't enjoy seeing Jason Schwartzman, too? As Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman, the first television host for the games, you start to expect him to be the film's answer for its moments of levity, and you can assume he's definitely the ancestor of Stanley Tucci's character, Caesar.
Once the main spectacle begins, the action becomes pretty exciting and dramatic, making the action of when it's their time to survive and battle to the death until one is left standing engaging, even if you don't care about the others. When they're kept in cages like animals at the zoo with little time to train, the way we watch them prepare to fight and use their skills is nonexistent.
The way it was depicted in this crumbled arena, and how nobody is rising beneath the ground, was miles better than what we saw in the first since it appeared less advanced with limited space, but the whole scale made me fear for Lucy Gray's life. When it enters that chapter, in particular, it is also worth seeing in IMAX.
When I thought everything was going well, the third act is why "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" lands on good but not outstanding. Not that it was dreadful since I was far or less still engaged by any means, but the distinct tone shift felt as though it was from another movie that wasn’t as interesting as what we experienced about an hour ago. That momentum built strongly early on disappeared once it wanted to focus more on Snow's journey and the consequences of what happened during the Hunger Games, resulting in a pretty unnecessary two-and-a-half-hour-long runtime. It is shocking how the first two halves moved smoothly for me.
Those who read the book expressed similar thoughts, which made me wonder if they planned to divide it into two parts since I heard the book is the longest and leaves audiences with the impression that the conclusion was rushed. It might have worked out better since, as Lawerence recently acknowledged in an interview, there were better decisions than dividing the last book into two films.
Initially, there was this feeling of not anticipating this since not only did the trailers not grab me as I hoped for, but I also asked myself, do we need another installment eight years after "Mockingjay – Part 2" came out? This movie has to have a purpose besides just a cash grab like the "Fantastic Beasts" series. Luckily for those involved, it was entertaining enough as it was. You have a worthwhile prequel when you also combine the exquisite production design with James Newton Howard's outstanding score.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is a solid addition to the series, strengthening its foundation with Blyth's unexpected turn as Snow and its ongoing world-building. Again, both for me and others, the last half wasn't totally effective as the first 2/3. That being said, if you enjoyed the books or the movies, you'd leave feeling that this adaptation is on par with the first two.