‘Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ Review: An Overlong, but Compelling Journey Back to Panem

The Hunger Games franchise became a phenomenon in the early 2010s. Besides grossing nearly three billion dollars worldwide, it helped launch the career of eventual Oscar winner Jennifer Lawerence. Eight years and one prequel novel later, audiences remained eager on the big screen for a journey back to Panem.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes follows the rise of the original movie's villain, Coriolanus “Coryo” Snow (Tom Blythe). This includes his role as a mentor to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) in the tenth annual Hunger Games.  In the film, Coriolanus strives to restore a sense of regality to his family name. He wants his remaining relatives, which includes Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan), and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schader), to have the life he believes his legacy deserves. To do so, Coriolanus must journey into the world of The Capital.

The high-society world proves something much more dangerous than Coriolanus bargained for. In his attempt to restore his family name, numerous obstacles come in his way. Certain characters oppose him, while others see his true genius potential.  Supporting performances channel these voices into his ear.  Those performances also offer up both the film's biggest strength and biggest frustration. Thanks to a bland performance by Blythe, the supporting characters come off as much more vivid. 

A Mixed Bag

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Blythe as young Coriolanus delivers the film's most disappointing turn. While it becomes stronger as the story progresses, Blythe does not share Donald Sutherland’s oozing charm. He's simply someone who had the world turned against him, which he conveys as being expressive over emotive. As the film goes along, it becomes easier to see the villainy in his character begin to form. That transition comes so late and so abruptly that Blythe makes little impact. The performances of Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis thankfully form the groundwork for Coriolanus’s villainy. 

Peter Dinklage stars as Dean Casca Highbottom, the dean of Coriolanus’s school, and one of the original designers of the Hunger Games. His dry and slightly villainous wit makes him a very compelling character. Especially in the sequences with Coriolanus, they pulse with a sense of menace.  Ditto Viola Davis as Dr. Volumina Gaul, the Hunger Games head game maker. Davis’s performance might divide viewers because it goes over the top at times. While riding the line of being cartoonish, her intentions remain consistently mysterious, making the performance compelling. Both characters become quite three-dimensional once Lucy Gray enters the picture.

Rachel Zegler made waves with her performance in 2021's West Side Story. She has a magnetic on-screen presence, which benefits Lucy Gray's character. From her first scene, Zegler has an immediately alluring quality. That makes the audience want to know more about her and want her to survive the brutality of the games. As the film progresses, her relationship with Coriolanus also evolves. Lucy Gray has a purity that contrasts her with Coriolanus’s villainy. That mystery in the performance (in particular, when she sings) helps to compensate for narrative shortcomings.

The Running Time Overstays Its Welcome

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Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes has a massive 158-minute running time. At that length, the film has much narrative ground and characters to cover. While the story remains compelling throughout, viewers will most certainly feel the length. Audiences will know what certain conversations allude to, no matter how cliched the character's motivations. Some viewers might forgive that narrative choice. Others may grow impatient with knowing how certain events will conclude–in particular, knowing where Coriolanus will end up in the Hunger Games future. The screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt exacerbates this problem.

The screenplay breaks the known writing rule of “show, don’t tell.” While in the games themselves, audiences can comprehend and understand a character’s motivations. The tension of the participants of the game, and those watching will fill viewers with anxiety. Much like the students and mentors, viewers will be on edge trying to guess how the games conclude. The closest sort of “show, don’t tell” in these moments resides in the performance of Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman). While serving as the comedic relief, he delivers the exposition. If only the rest of the screenplay could follow in his brief but effective footsteps.

As the film progresses past the games Coriolanus spends time outside of the capital. This includes staying with one of his old “friends” (though he tolerates him more than enjoys him), Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera). Much like the source material, Sejanus despises everything the Capital stands for. This makes his relationship with Coriolanus consistently hostile while only slightly friendly. In the film, the Sejanus character feels one-note. With nothing against Rivera’s performance, the attempts at giving the character “dimensions” fall flat. This makes him the film's most irritating character, with only brief moments of understanding and humility. 

To avoid spoilers, the third act of Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the strongest. The third-acts success resides in the emotional rollercoaster of Lucy Gray and Coriolanus’s relationship. Much like Lucy Gray herself, this section provides an air of unpredictability. While knowing where Coriolanus ends up, this act explains how he got there. The entire sequence becomes so compelling that it will make some viewers forgive the earlier languid and repetitive moments. 

Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes succeeds as an admirable continuation of this world. While not the same quality as the original franchise, the finished product remains entertaining. Certain performances (Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman, and Rachel Zegler) help to elevate weaker turns (Tom Blythe). Even with the tension lacking (in the sense that fans know the outcome for certain characters), the action set pieces and quiet character moments remain engaging. The overlong runtime and straightforward screenplay keep the film from reaching its full potential. Regardless, the results will still make for an enjoyable time at the movie theaters.

Rating: 7/10 Specs

In Theaters November 17th, 2023. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters right now.