Review by Adam Donato
About a decade after The Hunger Games franchise came to a close, audiences find themselves back in Panem for another installment in the franchise. As if splitting the finale into two parts didn’t stretch out this story enough. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a prequel detailing the rise of one President Snow, complete with another Hunger Games and more backstory on their genesis. With Francis Lawrence coming back to the director’s chair and a cast of stars both old and new, it will be interesting to see the public reception of this prequel. Was the story of Katniss lightning in a bottle, or does this world have more to explore?
No franchise extension is complete without constant reminders of its association with something the audience already loves. The characters may as well wink to the camera every time they mention District 12. Hardcore fans may enjoy these cheer desperate moments, but they really hinder this story’s ability to stand on its own. This is a real shame because, for the most part, this story really does stand on its own. A young President Snow is a compelling lead to follow, especially when entangled with the fate of Lucy Gray. Their budding romance is essential to making the target demographic of this type of movie maintain interest, but it’s interesting to see them hold back on building up their forbidden romance. Audiences are more than familiar with the standard Romeo and Juliet setup, so putting their own spin on it here was a good choice.
Tom Blyth stars as Coriolanus Snow alongside Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray. Blyth is relatively new, only previously starring in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood movie. Zegler, on the other hand, is no stranger to the limelight as of late. Here she gets the opportunity to flex her singing skills, which initiated her start in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. She also sports a thick southern accent throughout the movie, which makes sense, as her district is in the area of the Carolinas. The two have solid chemistry together as they play mind games with each other throughout the movie.
The most inspired casting in the film is Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman, an ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s standout character from the original series. He adds much needed comic relief and does a great job driving home the satire of the situation. Viola Davis is unhinged, and it’s a shame she didn’t get more screen time. Same can be said for Peter Dinklage. The veteran talent in the cast is responsible for holding down the fort here. The story takes an interesting departure, leaving us devoid of these three cast members, and the film grinds to a halt when that happens.
The main theme of the movie is muddy and feels like it comes out of nowhere. It’s hard to connect the dots between the character we saw during this film and the villain we get in the original series. Granted, there’s a big time difference between films, but from the journey presented here, it’s hard to justify Snow continually backing up the games. The ending is quite unsatisfying and leaves too many unanswered questions — not as much in an interpret for yourself way, and much more of the movie has to end at some point. Sporting a run time of over two and a half hours, getting through the movie is somewhat of a trek. Unfortunately, it’s easier to see something like this being historically compared to something obligatory like The Hobbit, rather than a passion project like Prometheus.
Despite the qualms with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, it’s a solid viewing experience for anyone already invested in The Hunger Games franchise. Studios can’t have their cake and eat it too. Enticing audiences with a continuation of the franchise, but alienating new viewers and facing comparison to the standard set in the original movies. That being said, it’s much more on par with the lot of The Hunger Games movies, except for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which is The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise, if there is one. Fans should catch this one in theaters, despite the onslaught of holiday releases this season.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17.