“The Hunger Games” franchise returned with a new prequel installment, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (2023) on Nov. 17. For a young adult dystopia movie genre that has fallen on hard times since its prime in the 2010s, the new “Hunger Games” film offers a nostalgia-driven refresher on why the original series worked so well.
Directed by Frances Lawrence of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013) and both parts of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” (2014 and 2015 respectively), “Songbirds and Snakes” follows a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) during the 10th Hunger Games through the same three-part structure as its source material written by Suzanne Collins. As a villain origin story for the man who becomes Panem’s calculating President Snow, it has earned its place next to the cultural behemoths that were the originals.
The greatest strength of “Songbirds and Snakes” lies within its bold aesthetic choices and commitment to the franchise’s strong political overtones. The technologically advanced country of Panem looks nothing like what audiences are used to. The elaborate costuming of Capitol citizens is traded in for a 1950s retro look, dialing in on the fact that the film takes place 64 years before Katniss first entered the arena. Still, the plot should be recognizable to fans of the saga as a story of the oppressor and the oppressed; of the ugliest side of humanity in war.
The film wastes no time on that point. It opens with scenes of the Capitol during the first rebellion. A young Snow and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) scavenge for food as the city is under heavy fire from District 13 forces. The death of Snow’s father in District 12 condemns the Snow family to poverty and serves as the primary motivation for the protagonist’s actions throughout. A quick time jump takes us to a teenage Snow on the day of his graduation from the Academy (the Capitol’s most elite high school).
After a wrench is thrown into his plan to win a ton of money for being top of his class, Snow is tasked with becoming a mentor to District 12’s female tribute, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Baird is a song-singing performer whose odds of survival in the games are low without Snow’s help. Most of this part of the movie hinges on Blyth and Zegler’s chemistry as their characters fall for each other in a star-crossed romance. The two actors excel at shifting between attraction and ulterior motives all the way to the end.
More acting applause, however, is due for Viola Davis as the psychopathic head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Her character is sparse throughout the film’s 2 hour and 37 minute run time, but captivating and quirky while she’s there. As a villain, she plays it with no gray area; Gaul hates rebels and will do anything to keep the Hunger Games alive, and her laboratory of freaky mutated animals proves just that.
The actual Hunger Games in “Songbirds and Snakes” is the movie’s best part before it proceedsinto a rushed thriller in its third chapter. The arena is designed as a Colosseum-like closed space with no place to hide. It’s meant as a reminder that the games were not always the survival-of-the-fittest spectacle as they are in their 74th year. Here, they are supposed to be quick and dirty bloodbaths where children kill each other to escape starvation as punishment for waging a war many of them were not old enough or alive to remember.
“Songbirds and Snakes” is a definitive must watch. It gives exactly what it promises and feels like an authentic addition to the story of “The Hunger Games.” Although it will no doubt be compared to other prequels like the despicable “Fantastic Beasts” cash grab series or the “Star Wars” films starring Hayden Christensen, “Songbirds and Snakes” stands apart by being on par with the best parts of the original four movies. While at times it drags and certain characters and dialogue feel extraneous, Tom Blyth’s bleach-blond buzz cut makes up for it.