It has been eight years since the “Hunger Game” franchise featuring Jennifer Lawrence ended. Instead of trying to continue that storyline, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” goes back decades for a prequel that shows the early manifestations of the games.
As long as the film is dealing with the primitive version of the cruel games that pits young people from various districts in a fight to the death, it is an interesting construction of the ground floor for the tales to come. At the center of the 10th Hunger Games are Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) and her mentor, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth).
If Snow’s name sounds familiar, you have seen the previous “Hunger Games” films. Donald Sutherland plays the character who is better known as President Snow. More on that later.
That gladiator-style contest makes up two-thirds of the film. When the movie shifts from the arena to the aftermath, the prequel becomes an annoying mixture of a flimsy love story and a series of music videos to spotlight Zegler’s singing skills. Her warbling was better suited for the “West Side Story” remake than this franchise.
Coriolanus looks to save the Snow line that has fallen on hard times. Money that he expected to win for his superb grades in school comes with a new catch. Only the mentor who turns their tribute into the best spectacle will get the prize.
He is reluctantly assigned to mentor Lucy Gray who is a free spirit and an eternal optimist. Not only does Snow want to help her to win the cash prize but he has become smitten by her charms.
Director Francis Lawrence – who directed three of “The Hunger Games” movies – uses the same blend of action and quirky moments to show the arena battles. He even calls on Jason Schwartzman to play the distant relative of the obnoxious Hunger Game announcer Caesar Flickerman portrayed by Stanley Tucci in an effort to create some lighter moments and forge a minor link between this film and the original films.
There is a lot less previewing of the action and the games are not as suspenseful but generally this part of the film works. Where it starts to fall apart is the over-the-top performance by the usually dependable Viola Davis. She plays Dr. Volumnia Gaul – the master manipulator behind the games – who ends up being one sneer away from being a comic book villain. Her overblown work proves counter productive to how much the film needed a strong central villain.
The failed attempt by Davis could have been overlooked had Lawrence not lost control of the movie in the third act. Writers Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt take a 180-degree turn with Snow that seems more like an effort to put him on the path to the presidency than to keep telling a strong story.
What appears to be a budding love affair between Lucy Gray and Snow shifts gears without reason. There is more time having Zegler sing than building on real emotional moments.
Snow ends up being the big problem. He starts out being a person of principle but without any real mitigating factors, starts committing vile acts. There is one moment of betrayal that makes Snow look ice cold but then the audience is expected to believe he regrets the decisions he has made.
There is always one inherent problem with prequels in that some of the anticipation of what could happen is blocked by knowing how certain events and people will proceed. Unless it is a science fiction or comic book-inspired film, it doesn’t matter how much certain characters are threatened – even with death – they are going to survive for the films set in a later time period.
Snow’s brush with death and his indecision as to be good or bad are never in question as it is clear where the character will end up and how he will act. Part of that falls on Blyth as his performance is too rigid to make him a likable mentor and romantic figure.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” has a running time of more than two-and-half hours. The film should have ended at the two-hour mark and saved the last material for another film where the dramatic shift the characters make could be expanded to a more understandable level.
As it is, these “Songbirds” sing way too much and the “Snakes” have little bite.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Cast: Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing material
Running time: 157 minutes.