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The Hunger Games return with songbirds and snakes: Movie Review

Photo: Lionsgate
Photo: Lionsgate

Nearly a decade since The Hunger Games was last on the big screen, the franchise returns this weekend with the stylish and suspenseful Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, an expansive prequel that delivers more intelligence and tension than most blockbuster action movies aspire to.

Songbirds and Snakes takes too long to execute its sprawling, three-act story, but the movie has such a dynamic cast and fascinating production design that most audiences will be enthralled the entire time.

Sustaining interest and mining drama in long-running franchises has always been a challenge for Hollywood, and the worst offenders are young adult books series. So how how does this fifth Hunger Games film manage among the odds not even in their favour?

That’s where returning director Francis Lawrence comes in and pulls off a miracle: his grisly, unflinching look at the horrors of early days in the dystopian setting of Panem is filled with high stakes and white-knuckle hopelessness.

The prequel centres on the early days of eventual villain Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) as a teenager, wading through the upper class the oppressive "Capitol" city. 

In order to win an essential scholarship, he’s tasked with mentoring the teenage tribute Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler, known for 2021's terrific West Side Story) in the upcoming Hunger Games - a televised sport where impoverished teenagers must fight each other to the death.

Blyth and Zegler are giving grounded, desperate performances as the two leads thrust together in the early days of Panem’s new history, both presenting the same commitment of stakes and tactics that defined Jennifer Lawrence when she was the star of this series as Katniss Everdeen.

But they’re surrounded by an equally talented ensemble - especially Viola Davis as the manic, menacing gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, easily the series’ most compelling and exciting villain. Fionnula Flanagan and Hunter Schafer also have memorable moments as Snow’s direct family.

Photo: Lionsgate
Photo: Lionsgate

Viewers don’t need to be committed franchise experts to follow or appreciate Songbirds & Snakes, but it certainly helps. Dedicated fans will have a deeper emotional response, while newcomers may find the story smart but soulless.

Lawrence’s vision for the now-famous setting in Suzanne Collins’ popular book series is brimming with a sleek and scary design that’s just ominous enough to balance its gravity for teenage fans of the books and adult viewers coming to the cinema on their own accord.

The costumes are stunning, channeling class and pressure into practical fashion. The sets are immaculately detailed, filled with wreckage and pristine power to constantly threaten the hopes of each character.

What surprised me the most, however, is the heavy prominence of music that carries the narrative, most from Zegler’s Lucy demonstrating her strong vocal talents. Best among the several songs is the return of "The Hanging Tree", the standout sequence from 2014’s Mockingjay Part One.

It makes sense that music would play such a significant role in this prequel: as the title suggests, this story is a literal ballad. It’s not quite a musical, but the music is undoubtably integral to this story.

The end result is a film passionately focused on its theme of obligation, societal control, hunger and capital punishment - the latter quite literally. While the nearly three hour run time drags out the long-winded story, it never wavers from the tense focus of how Snow turns from his hopeful outlook into his grim vision for Panem’s continued oppression.

I would love to get more specific on the film’s narrative strength, but it’s hard to comment on Snow and Lucy’s character arcs without spoiling what happens. 

All that to be said, this ballad is an uncompromising tragedy, but executed in the way great tragedies should: with a dark compassion for why allegiances changes, and with a clear direction for how songbirds can indeed be transformed into snakes.

The Huger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

7 out of 10

PG, 2hrs 37mins. Fantasy Action Drama.

Directed by Francis Lawrence.

Starring Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman and Peter Dinklage.

Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, 5 Drive-In, Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP and Cineplex Oakville & VIP. Also in IMAX.