It has been nine years since the conclusion of Katniss Everdeen’s story in Mockingjay: Part 2. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes serves as a prequel origin story of the villainous President Snow. Long-time franchise director Francis Lawrence returns to the helm and perfectly maintains the feel of the previous films. Time away from the franchise – caused by the long gap in publishing of Suzanne Collins’ source material – has reinvigorated the property. Here, the filmmakers wisely condensed the tome into one film, broken into three parts. This makes it more palatable and, by extension, enjoyable. The film is not without its faults, but it captures the nostalgia of the original, improves the pacing that made the last few entries a chore, and delivers an engaging, self-contained story worthy of a trip back to the Districts.
Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is selected to be a mentor for the 10th Hunger Games. Seeing a drop in the popularity and effectiveness of the Games to control residents of the Districts, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) devise a plan that Capital students will serve as mentors to win favor and a financial reward. Snow is paired with tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and becomes invested in her as not just a way to see his family out of hard times. Together, they work to win favor and survive the Games while navigating their complicated feelings for one another. As events take an unexpected turn, Snow and fellow mentor Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andres Rivera) leave the Capital on a journey that will forever alter the future of Panem.
First, I want to make clear that the two names ending in “anus” and one ending in “bottom” should not suggest a high level of levity. The film has sparse humorous moments and takes itself as seriously as the other films. It is not as heavy as the others, but Lawrence maintains the same dystopian tone. It takes place in a world where the Hunger Games are established, and the Districts are arranged by class. However, this film shies away from the class elements between the Districts and pivots to the perspective of the Capital. This results in an us versus them mentality that depicts all Districts as equally inhumane. The caste dynamic hits different now than in 2014, making this film feel more grounded than its predecessors. That should be read as good for the movie and bad for the real world.
Overall, the cast give solid performances. However, the lack of distinction between the Districts means that the Tributes aren’t given much personality. Fortunately, the film focuses less on the actual Games and more on those behind the scenes. Blyth gives a star-making performance that is nuanced yet intense. Davis chews up every scene, commanding attention and relishing her villainous side. Despite a questionable “aw shucks” accent, Zegler entrances with her fire and determination that perfectly complements Blyth’s icy demeanor. As host Lucky Flickerman, Jason Schwartzman delivers pitch-perfect one-liners that feel out of place and entirely necessary all at once. Dinklage alone phones it in, lazing through scenes and bringing little more than what was on the page.
Fortunately, Lawrence keeps things moving. Splitting the film into three episodic segments serves to keep any one sequence from overstaying its welcome. It also allows him to spend more time focusing on Snow and Lucy Gray, who, through the actors’ chemistry, captivate. It is a hard-sell to make a known treacherous villain sympathetic but the screenplay by Michael Arndt and Michael Leslie gives the character Snow room to do just that. His rise to villainy is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.
Another area where the film shines is in its music. James Newton Howard returns to compose the film’s score and delivers a franchise best. However, it is a series of new songs on the film’s soundtrack that stand out. Though her adopted accent feels off while speaking, Zegler’s folksy vocals are haunting and beautiful. “Nothing You Can Take from Me” stands as an anthem and could be a frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race.
The film does sport some weak visuals that are occasionally distracting. Unfortunately, this seems on par with most blockbuster films this year. It is curious that a film released nine years later bears a similar and, at times, lesser visual quality when advances in computer graphics should make the effects appear clearer and more realistic. Likewise, the staging of the film’s action sequences lack finesse and complexity. However, Lawrence’s matter-of-fact approach with these sequences downplays the sensationalism of the acts, particularly in the Games, and makes it seem intentional. This, in turn, makes the brutal killings feel commonplace and not unlike any of the atrocities occurring in the world today.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes stands amongst the best of the franchise, hailing a welcome return to the world of Panem. Blyth leads a strong cast, delivering top-notch performances. While visual effects are weak, director Lawrence excels at pulling the focus away from the violence and onto the characters. Newton Howard’s score and Zegler’s emotional vocals elevate the film’s soundtrack to one of the year’s best. This is one franchise prequel that I will fully accept as Tribute.