Title: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
MPA Rating: PG-13
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis
Runtime: 2 hr 37 mins
What It Is: The film is set sixty four years before the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy. The story follows Cornelius Snow (Tom Blyth), a promising young student at the Capitol Academy who aims to win a prize to get his family much needed wealth. He, along with his fellow peers, are selected to mentor each member of the twelve districts in preparation for the Annual Hunger Games tournament. In Snow’s case, he’s landed with a young woman from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a feisty spirit with the vocals of an angel. As the film goes along, Snow and Lucy Gray develop romantic feelings for each other.
What We Think: When it comes to the Hunger Games franchise, I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest fan. I read the first book back in high school, but I haven’t bothered to read the rest of the novels. I remember mostly liking the first Hunger Games back in 2012. I thought the sequel, Catching Fire was excellent and was also a monumental improvement over its predecessor. I wasn’t too big on Mockingjay Part I and II. I didn’t think the last two films were awful, but I felt the choice to split the film in two padded out a thin storyline and it didn’t help that the conclusion was underwhelming. Needless to say, I went into this film with zero expectations. I am pleased to say that this film was much better than I expected. Let me get the praise out of the way. For one, the film is gorgeously filmed and the production design is one of the few highlights of the film. District 12 looks much like a city steeped in poverty and the working class. The film is very well-directed – the hunger games tournament itself is a thrillingly suspenseful blast of exhilaration. The movie definitely pushes its PG-13 rating much further than I was expecting. Much of the violence in this movie isn’t pleasant to watch, and there was one death of a minor character in particular that was emotionally devastating. The performances all around were nothing short of impressive. Tom Blyth brings enough charisma and emotional complexity to his role as a morally complicated individual torn between right and wrong. The real standout here is Rachel Zegler, who is excellent in this film. She really gets a chance to showcase her range as a performer, and the scenes with her singing add much needed emotional brevity to the film’s oppressively grim world. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Viola Davis is deliciously creepy as the head of the games, and Hunter Schaffer, despite her brief screen time, adds gleeful positivity to the scenes she’s in.
The film does make an interesting choice of having the story told in three parts, and I think that choice pays off, for the most part. The first two parts are easily the strongest of the film, however, I felt Part III wasn’t nearly as engaging as the first two. The last half of the film isn’t bad by any means, but it does drag on a bit too long. I also felt Snow’s transformation to evil was a bit rushed, and I would’ve loved to see more scenes setting up his turn to villainy. That aspect might have been explored more effectively in the novel, but as I said above, I’m not too familiar with the books.
Our Grade: B+. Despite some of the imperfections, the film is still solidly entertaining in its own right. Prequels are always a gamble, and they’re often tough to get right. As far as those types of films go, This is one of the better ones.