"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" Film Review

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023) - IMDb

"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" Film Review

Rating: 4/5

By: Nathaniel Simpson

    "The Hunger Games" took the world by storm when it was first released, making actress Jennifer Lawrence a bonafide superstar and ushering in the genre of teenagers falling in love in dystopian societies that try to force each other apart. For Katniss and Peta, it was the Capitol and the Hunger Games, both ran by the cruel tyrant known as President Coriolanus Snow (portrayed excellently by Donald Sutherland). The newest film in the Hunger Games saga, "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes", serves as a prequel to the events from the original film, showing Coriolanus' (now played by Tom Blythe) first time as a mentor for the Hunger Games, and how he falls in love with his tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). I was interested to see how this film would go after reading the novel from Suzanne Collins, but this movie blew my expectations out of the water, and crafted perhaps my second favorite film in the franchise. 

    The plot takes place during the 10th annual Hunger Games, where the students from the school are assigned the tributes from the districts, hoping to secure a financial prize if their tribute wins in the arena. Snow is alarmed and disappointed when he receives the District 12 tribute, but those feelings change when he sees Lucy Gray, and how deeply infatuated he becomes with her. He now starts believing he has a chance to win the Games, even though he is threatened by the creator of the Hunger Games, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) and the crazed Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis).

    There is no doubt about it - Blythe is excellent as a young Coriolanus Snow. From beginning to end, he does a marvelous job of playing the younger version of this cruel character, going from someone the audience can root for and wants to succeed to becoming this dark, hateful version of himself that is heartbreaking to watch evolve. From the way he presents himself as a character to even his appearance across the different time frames of this film, there is no one else who could have even come close to being a better Snow that Mr. Blythe. 

    At the same time, Zegler (who has lately made numerous headlines for controversial things she has stated) shows just how talented of an actress she really is. She rose to stardom as Spielberg's Maria in his spin on "West Side Story", and has then gone on to be cast as Snow White in Disney's live-action adaptation of their first animated film. Here, playing southerner Lucy Gray from District 12, she portrays this character to near-perfection. It is honestly hard to see her as Zegler and not as the character she is playing. I think that is what every actor should strive for when giving a performance, and Zegler has seemingly gotten it down. From her accent to her singing to the way she is so carefree and gracious in every action she does, it is hard not to love Lucy Gray, which is exactly what the filmmakers were going for. Even when paired with Blythe, they have fantastic chemistry, perhaps the best in the entire franchise if I'm going to be honest. 

    Even the minor characters here are fantastic in their respective roles. Hunter Schafer is so lovable as Tigris, and she is definitely the perfect fit for how this character was written. Dinklage, who has played many great characters throughout his career, does justice to the character of Casca, and he translates the character from page to screen in ways I exactly imagined. But, the two standout minor characters here are Gaul and Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera, who is actually in a relationship with Zegler at the time of filming). Davis is absolutely terrifying in a very sadistic and deranged way. She really understood who this character was and what her priorities are, and it all just works so very well. Sejanus, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. He is the character you root for, the character you love so much that when something happens to him, the viewer feels the pain as well. Rivera has this sense of innocence behind him, which really translates well into this character. There is one particular scene involving a tree towards the end of the film, where his performance will send chills down the spine of everyone watching. Rivera has only really played minor characters up to this point, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will be in leading roles very soon.

    In terms of the story, I wasn't a huge fan of the second half of the novel, and the film fixes that in a way. To an extent, the movie tries to wrap itself up very quickly, not allowing itself to drag on like the book did. But, and to no fault of the screenwriters, the flow of the film slows down heavily, and the tone shifts drastically when it hits the portion of the film where Snow finds himself in District 12. The studio split "Mockingjay" into two parts when it didn't need it, but I feel like this book could have been utilized better as two separate films. It seems odd that these two parts came together to make one cohesive film. At the same time, the Hunger Games in this film seemed to drag quite a bit as well. It honestly felt like the filmmakers had a hard time getting to each plot point during the games, but it is made more bearable by Jason Schwartzman's hilarious performance as Lucky Flickerman, who is easily a standout character here.

    But, I will say this - when the story needs to hit something home or make the viewer feel a specific way, it does so marvelously. Consider the numerous times Snow betrays those he loves. You know it is coming as this is setting up the villain of President Snow, but it hurts every single time, especially towards the latter half of the picture. Director Francis Lawrence has always been able to make the emotional stakes very high, and can easily affect the viewer by what happens in his films. That was the whole point of this movie - it wants the viewer to feel the pain and agony over all the decisions Snow made; it does so perfectly, if I must say so. 

    I wasn't sure how this one was going to go. I thought the Hunger Games fad passed, and this movie was just another cash grab for the studios. But, I am pleased to say that this movie works so well, not only as a franchise but by itself. It does justice to its source material, and does a fantastic job of expanding this franchise farther than we would have thought. It opens up this whole other world of Panem we haven't seen before, and I am happy Lawrence and his team of filmmakers and actors took a chance on this one. Some people have said this genre of film should die off, but after seeing this film, a huge part of me wants to see where they can take this if they decide to do future installments.