Review | The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes | 2023

Rachel Zeigler as Lucy Gray Baird and Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow. Photo by Murray Close.

It's been eight years since we last visited the world of Panem in 2015's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. While the story of Katniss Everdeen might have ended there, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes us back 60 years to the 10th Annual Hunger Games, where a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), long before he becomes the fascist president of Panem, serves as a mentor for another District 12  tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zeigler).

The film traces his descent into fascism and his rise through the ranks of the Capitol - a journey that begins with falling in love with Lucy Gray, a feisty nomad whose singing prowess soon wins the hearts and minds of the people, while Snow's ideas to help her win the games turn the bloody spectacle of children murdering children into the garish circus we see in the previous four films. 

As a character piece about the rise of fascism, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes leaves much to be desired. Sure, this is based on YA lit, but the Hunger Games films have always been surprisingly astute about the nature of authoritarianism. By the time this film takes place, the Capitol has already beaten the districts and established the Hunger Games as punishment, so the focus isn't so much on the rise of the fascist government but on Snow's evolution from ambitious young academy student to ruthless ruler of Panem. Even more frustrating, the class and power dynamics between Snow and Lucy Gray are all but lost in this tale of star-crossed love, making the whole thing feel strangely dishonest.

The cast is certainly great fun - Rachel Zeigler is fantastic as Lucy Gray, while supporting turns by Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis are a delight. The film itself, on the other hand, is overlong and unwieldy. When the titular games finally reach their end, the film still has nearly an hour left to go, as it continues to explore Snow's villainous origins. The issue here is that they never quite seem to jell with the character we've seen in the film. Dark decisions seem rushed, his turn toward anger and revenge seems somehow abrupt. Self-serving, yes, but there's very little build up that makes these decisions seem plausible. It's as if the film finishes the Hunger Games and then realizes that it has to turn Snow bad now, scrambling to tell the actual story and it struggling to find its footing as a result.

In the end, the fun performances by a game cast can't make up for poor pacing and a bloated runtime that feels wholly unearned. It's almost worth the length just to watch Viola Davis chew the scenery, but unlike some even longer films this year, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes really feels its length - a testament to the importance of pacing in telling a good story.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES | Directed by Francis Lawrence | Stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan | Rated PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.


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