After a pause in the “Hunger Games” franchise, a prequel is now part of the timeline! The infamous villain from the original films gets a backstory as we see President Snow’s rise to power. The Snow family has fallen on hard times, but young Coriolanus Snow sees an opportunity to regain his family glory. He is one of the lucky students who gets to mentor a tribute during the 10th annual Hunger Games. He begins to develop feelings for his tribute, deciding to help her win by any means necessary. Through his journey, we witness his fall into tyranny and selfishness. His legacy will not only change the lives of those in the games, but all of Panem forever.
I’ve always been a fan of this franchise. The real-world implications of social unrest, abuse of power, rebellion, tyranny, and many other themes are always at the center of each story. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is the kind of prequel one hopes for. Not only is this a wonderfully crafted story, but it makes the previous films better. Prequels will often fall into a trap of answering questions that are best left unexamined. Here, we get to see the complicated backstory of the franchise’s main villain. But the story doesn’t strip him down into a misunderstood person or force him to be a mustache twirling villain, but instead provides insights on the formation of his ideology and lust for power. Coriolanus’ struggles are highlighted nicely, helping us understand why he was more aggressive in his journey to power. He is calculated, manipulative, and confident. These traits elevate his standing in the other films as a villain whose power and intellect outweigh his physical might and strength. I love to see when further explanations help a character rather than muddy their foundation.
“The Hunger Games” movies have generally been casted well, and that’s no exception here. I couldn’t find one weak link amongst the performers. Standouts for me were Tom Blyth as Coriolanus and Viola Davis as the ruthless Dr. Gaul. Rachel Zegler provides some excellent musical numbers while serving as Coriolanus’ tribute from District 12. Peter Dinklage and Josh Andres Rivera turn in nice supporting performances. Jason Schwartzmann is likely to turn heads as well, providing an animated portrayal as the game host: Lucky Flickerman. Veteran to the franchise Francis Lawrence returns to direct, delivering his sharpest film in the series yet.
What impressed me the most about “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is how much it surprised me. I expected to enjoy the film being a fan of the others, but I didn’t expect it would be this intense and engaging. This is the darkest film in the franchise to date, stripping back the theatricality of the games and returning to the raw brutality of their origins. We get to see how important the television ratings for the games are and why the idea of mentoring, supplies, and betting on tributes changed the games forever. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but feel how awful the idea of children fighting to the death is. But this film highlights the idea in the most disturbing way yet. We observe how the Capitol citizens view the district children as disposable entertainment and punishment for previous wartime events. But the gross nature of someone’s child being forced to die as punishment for a cause they may not understand was displayed in a very powerful way. Coriolanus has his morality conflicted for portions of the film, but we see his transformation as the film goes on. He clearly has a sense of humanity, but how much he is willing to retain it plays a large part in this story. I’m very impressed with the effectiveness of the story and how it elevates the previous films!
Some criticism has been pointed towards the third act. I would agree that the content is the most robust yet has the least amount of exploration. There are many events taking place which are integral to Coriolanus’ future that could have used more screentime. When looking back at the Mockingjay film, that story didn’t need to be split into two films where this one would have benefitted from doing so. There’ just so much content to explore. I believe the film’s portrayal of the third act events is satisfactory but could have been even more effective if given a full film.
For better or worse, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” has a different feel from the other films. I personally enjoyed this as it helps distinguish the story from the others. But some may not enjoy that the film goes even darker than the others. Just something to be mindful of. For me, the character study is as good as ever.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” surprised me in the best way. It crafts a tense story full of interesting characters and thoughtful themes. Great performances carry the story forward as it explores the Hunger Games like we’ve never seen before. I enjoy that this one feels like a story of its own while respecting the movies that came before it. I’m happy to say that it is one of my favorite films of the year. This is how to do a prequel right!