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'The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes' Review

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November 16, 2023
By:
Hunter Friesen
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A lot of hot air has been exhumed over the past year about the exponential increase in movie runtimes. Avatar: The Way of Water (192 minutes), Babylon (189 minutes), The Batman (177 minutes), Killers of the Flower Moon (206 minutes), Oppenheimer (180 minutes), and Beau Is Afraid (179 minutes) are just a few of the martyrs that had to take a few lashes from audiences (some more than others) for testing the endurance of butts. With a title that takes just as long to say as it does to watch the movie, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the one behemoth where I find myself siding with audiences. 157 minutes isn’t that long compared to the previous examples, but it’s too damn long here. It suffers from a much more severe case that found itself attached to Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King where we reach the climax and expect a somewhat swift resolution, and yet the film just keeps going… and going… and going… and going.


But that only becomes a problem once we reach the final act of this three-act plot, with the first two offering some of the best material this YA franchise has seen. Director Francis Lawrence is back at the helm after guiding the final three entries in the Jennifer Lawrence tetralogy. His presence maintains a sense of consistency with those earlier films. The tone is still grim, with this story being set 64 years in the past and centering on a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blythe) as he tries to pick up his family name immediately after the great District v Captial civil war.



The annual Hunger Games are still in their infancy and the citizen’s interest in them is starting to wane. Favor is as good a currency as actual money, two things Snow is in desperate need of. He can receive favor from his superiors, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), by providing ideas on how to improve the fledging games. It’s an almost eerily similar situation to modern sports, with Snow being thought of as a genius when he comes up with the idea of making the contest more narrative-driven and allowing spectators to bet on the outcome (hopefully The Capital is located in a state that allows that). Physical currency will come from being a good mentor to District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) as the winning tribute and mentor receive a substantial reward.


Is money worth having if it’s been soaked in blood? Don’t forget, becoming the winning tribute most likely requires them to murder a few of their fellow competitors. Both Lucy Gray and Coriolanus aren’t exactly born killers. Even less of a killer is Coriolanus’ classmate Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who sees the games as cruel and unusual punishment against children too young to be alive during the war. 


It’s an interesting bit of politics to follow these teenagers navigate a world of power-mad adults. Coriolanus and Lucy Gray have a compelling relationship, neither of them being fully ready to embrace the role of being a hero or villain (or anti-hero). They’ve been brought up to hate each other because of their class differences (describing someone as “district” is equivalent to calling them poor), except now they must work hand-in-hand to gain a competitive advantage.



Of course, we do already know the outcome of this battle on account of this being a prequel, but Blythe does a great job masking that through his complex performance. It’s too bad writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt constantly make his job tougher as they haphazardly flip his characterization in the third act. Their treatment of Zegler is more consistent, with both them and her leaning hard into the several opportunities to unleash her immaculate singing voice. Viola Davis is clearly having the most fun, literally introducing herself while maniacally cackling and often found fondling deadly snakes.


Even with it being unable to promptly say goodbye and bits of desperate fan service, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a cut above the rest of the YA genre. It’s actually a shame that isn’t supposed to be the start of a whole series, as there’s more than enough here to sustain an even deeper dive into this enticing world.

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