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Review: ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is a Franchise Revival with the Odds Firmly in Its Favor

November 9, 2023Ben MK

Bidding farewell to a beloved franchise is never easy for moviegoers. However, for the studios, it can be even more difficult, especially with billions of dollars in box office revenue on the line. Whether it's the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the galactic adventure of the Star Wars saga, or the brooding superheroics of the Dark Knight, the list of fan-favorite film series that have been resurrected from the grave is a long one. And with the highly anticipated The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, author Suzanne Collins' YA blockbuster is joining that pack, as director Francis Lawrence returns to the dystopian world of Panem once again to tell the tale of how the Hunger Games came to be.

Set 64 years prior to the events of 2012's The Hunger Games, the prequel follows an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the future president of Panem whose humble beginnings belie the fearsome man he's destined to become. Orphaned at the tender age of 5 and raised by his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), Corionalus and his older cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer) weren't as wealthy as some of the other citizens in the Capitol. Nevertheless, that didn't stop him from attending and ascending to the top academic ranks at Panem's most prestigious educational institution, where each year the student with the most impressive grades is awarded the Plinthe prize, not to mention the generous financial reward that comes along with it. This year, unfortunately, the school's Dean, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), has decided to shake things up. And if Corionalus is to have any hope of winning that much needed prize money for himself and his family, he'll have to do so by alternate means — by becoming a successful mentor to one of the games' two-dozen hand-picked players.

Tasked with mentoring a rebellious and musically inclined tribute from the poverty-stricken District 12 named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), Coriolanus is forced to step far outside of his comfort zone and take a more hands-on approach with his new assignment. What he never counted on, however, was for he and his camera-friendly new protégé to start developing feelings for one another. And with game master/mad scientist Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) hard at work in her laboratory devising all manner of mutated monstrosities to serve as deadly challenges for this year's tributes, he and Lucy Gray's burgeoning relationship gives Coriolanus all the more reason to start thinking outside the box and bending the rules to try and ensure her survival — even if that means putting his very own life on the line and risking his coveted status as one of Panem's most elite.

Based on Collins' 2020 bestseller, the result goes above and beyond the typical big budget, Hollywood franchise reboot, giving moviegoers ample reason to reinvest themselves in the series, despite the notable absence of fan favorites Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, whose on-screen chemistry helped make the original movies the massive successes that they were. But while Zegler proves her Lucy Gray to be a compelling and worthy predecessor to Lawrence's Katniss, it's really Blyth's performance as a young and ambitious Snow that stands out, thanks to the 28-year-old actor's ability to bring shades of moral conflict, romantic interest and good old-fashioned self-centeredness to his portrayal of the previous films' villainous patriarch and leader.

Make no mistake, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes still has its work cut out for it, especially with a lengthy third-act epilogue that's more than likely to test the patience of even the most ardent moviegoer. For audiences who have a vested and long-running interest in The Hunger Games, though, there's no shortage of Easter eggs and fan service to keep viewers wanting more. And when it comes to reinvigorating a popular, existing franchise with new blood, that's as much as the filmmakers can do to try and set the odds in their favor.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes releases October 17th, 2023 from Lionsgate Films. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 37 min.

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