It's been eight years since ' our last theatrical venture into the world of Panem' but now, another 'Hunger Games' instalment is hitting the big screen. Based on the 2020 novel of the same name, 'The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes' takes us back 64 years before Katniss Everdeen's first adventures – charting the early years of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth, 'Benediction'), the tyrannical president of Panem in the original stories. Set against the backdrop of the 10th Annual Hunger Games, Snow finds himself the mentor of Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, 2021's 'West Side Story'), a tribute from District 12. When Lucy harnesses her musical abilities during her reaping ceremony, Snow is captivated – soon realising that he can use her abilities, combined with his political aptitude to their benefit.
'Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,' naturally, embraces the same balance of YA action adventure, political commentary, and epic scope that we've come to know from the 'Hunger Games' franchise. With its "prequel" setting, a somewhat retro feel also adds another element of intrigue – allowing the movie its own style, and an ability to stand on its own.
SWITCH: 'THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES' TRAILER 2
Thankfully, the film restrains itself from throwing out many on-the-nose references, easter-eggs, or – as the 'Star Wars' fandom has so beautifully embraced, Glup Shittos. This allows it to breathe its own breath without standing on the shoulders of those that came before.
The Hunger Games presented in this movie are, naturally, an archaic version of what we've come to know. Instead of an open forrest with tributes running for their lives, it's a more primitive and primordial event – tributes (all teenaged) thrown together in colloseum, forced to fight each other like the mighty gladiators of Rome. There are some brutal kills in here (naturally, bloodless, gore-free, and teen-friendly) and plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments. It's captivating and engaging, and allows for some fantastic action sequences – perhaps some of the franchise's best.
Characters new and old evoke the same pomp, eccentricity, and flair that we've come to love from the franchise; and Baird and Snow are equally as appealing as Katniss and Peeta (though, I did desperately miss Jennifer Lawrence's screen presence), sharing an equally desirable chemistry. Viola Davis ('The Woman King') turns in a particularly elaborate performance as Dr Volumnia Gaul – the creator and head game maker of The Hunger Games – which captures a perfect amount of camp and cartoon zing, while Jason Schwartzman ('Asteroid City') delivers a zany, Wes-Anderson-worthy oddity in Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman – the host of the 10th Hunger Games, the first to be broadcast on TV – and delivers some of the movie's greatest moments and desireably cringey laughs. Hunter Schaffer likewise stuns in her first live-action film performance, though gets nowhere near the screentime you'd hope.
It's captivating and engaging, and allows for some fantastic action sequences – perhaps some of the franchise's best.
Tonally, the movie is great for the most part – it's dark and gritty, but is never afraid to fully embrace its often cartoony nature. There are tones of humour in here, much of it sickly sweet dark comedy which elicited huge reactions from the audience of my preview screening.
The major issue with 'Songbirds & Snakes', is, however, in its length. Like so many blockbusters now, the film really pushes its run time – at a little over two and a half hours, it overstays its welcome by a good 45 to 60 minutes; annoyingly, ruining the film's otherwise terrific pacing. Granted, the film is split into "parts", and it's at the end of "Part Two" where the film really feels like it should put on the breaks. Instead, it labours on for another hour, in a somewhat rushed closing chapter. That said, thank God they didn't spread the book across three movies, 'Hobbit'-style – however, it's clear to see that the studio will no doubt find other ways to extend and bleed this franchise far beyond, perhaps, even what even author Suzanne Collins intended.
Overall, 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songs & Snakes' is a worthy addition to this franchise that I've sorely missed this last near-decade. It's a competent prequel that offers many franchise-great moments, and legitimately adds to the overall experience, but it's one that isn't without flaws. I'd be happy for this franchise to end right here – but something inside me guiltily wants to see where they can take it next.