The Hunger Games are back and better than ever with a prequel that gets to the thematic roots of the entire franchise with startling precision and delightfully cinematic fashion.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES
5. Taking Hunger Games to New Heights
Written multiple years after the conclusion of her mainline “Hunger Games” saga, Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” showcased real growth from her as a storyteller. Delightfully, the film adaptation of “Songbird and Snakes” sees director Francis Lawrence and his creative team leaning into all of Collins’ most significant strengths and similarly delivering the best, most emotionally charged, and resonant installment of the film series.
The script by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt (scribe of modern classics like “Toy Story 3” and “Little Miss Sunshine”) is fantastic. Perhaps the most profound stroke of “Songbird and Snakes,” both as a novel and a film, is how it utilizes the games themselves. While prior entries revolved entirely around the games, this installment uses them as a Trojan Horse of sorts, delving into greater character-driven emotional depths off the back of them. It’s a smart and unexpected storytelling choice that allows this single film to play like a much more definitive iteration of Collins’ world than the sum total of the previous four films.
4. The Musicality
From Lucy Gray Baird’s folk performances to the legendary James Newton Howard’s musical score, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is an overwhelmingly musical film and is all the better for it. Steering entirely into Lucy’s role as a performer within the story, the film not only provides a wondrous spotlight for Rachel Zegler but also injects some genuine pathos and authenticity into its world-building. The characters who populate Panem and its districts here feel tangible and painfully human through and through. By letting us experience joy and celebration alongside them so authentically and beautifully in these musically-driven scenes, it makes their harrowing pain all the more palpable. Simultaneously, James Newton Howard’s score is insanely brilliant here. His sonic work makes every setpiece that much better and sells so much of the emotional turmoil with such panache. It’s fantastic.
3. The Incredible Ensemble Cast
The ensemble cast of “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is truly a treasure trove of talent. From the commanding presence of Tom Blyth to the remarkable performances of Peter Dinklage, Josh Andrés Rivera, Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman, and the late-in-the-game addition of Burn Gorman, every member of this cast is thoroughly relishing their time on screen in a spectacular fashion.
In a film brimming with scene-stealers, it’s Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman who come close to stealing the show entirely. Both deliver wonderfully unhinged performances in their own unique styles, providing a delightful viewing experience. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that everyone in the cast contributes fantastic work, and this doesn’t even touch upon a certain songbird who will soon have her own spotlight.
2. Francis Lawrence’s Direction
Francis Lawrence directed the preceding three “Hunger Games” films, yielding varied results. While his initial venture into Panem with “Catching Fire” earned acclaim, the two-part “Mockingjay” finale received less favorable reviews. Therefore, his return to the franchise with his latest work is particularly delightful, showcasing his most intriguing, powerfully driven, and distinctly motivated effort to date. Collaborating once again with cinematographer Jo Willems, Lawrence crafts a grand-scale, big-budget blockbuster that not only boasts an impressive visual spectacle but, more crucially, imparts a profound sense of magnitude and emotion.
The phenomenal production design by Uli Hanisch foregrounds practical sets and Lawrence’s Direction takes full advantage of this, utilizing exceedingly wide lenses and making the most of the IMAX frame at exceedingly opportune moments. All of this, combined with a visual language that feels deeply anchored in the subjective experience of this story and these characters, results in some of the best work of Lawrence’s entire career.
1. Rachel Zegler
The brilliance of Rachel Zegler in the role of Lucy Gray Baird in this film cannot be emphasized enough. The literal songbird from Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” showcases an outright incandescent performance, elevating every line, shot, and scene she graces. Zegler’s singing prowess, her physicality, and the remarkable depth of emotion she conveys through every inch of her face are truly astounding. Witnessing Zegler’s performance on an IMAX screen alone makes the entire cinematic experience worth the price of admission.
With phenomenal finesse and grace, Zegler skillfully navigates Lucy Gray Baird’s arc, transforming the character’s ambiguous departure from the story into a genuinely haunting portrayal of lost innocence. Her performance is both amazing and beautiful.
While “Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” earns praise for its performances, filmmaking, and craftsmanship, a potential criticism lies in its ambitious attempt to cover the entirety of Collins’ novel. Despite its extended runtime, the final act may feel somewhat rushed. However, the movie remains more than capable of providing an emotionally raw and thoroughly satisfying conclusion, showcasing exemplary talent and artistry.
“Songbirds and Snakes” stands out as the best film in the “Hunger Games” franchise by a considerable margin, showcasing exemplary blockbuster filmmaking that warrants a big-screen viewing.