Enter The Arena: The Hunger Games -The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

There's a problem in Hollywood. It's been proven time and time again that not every story needs a prequel or an origin tale. Yet, they continue to milk each successful franchise for every single dollar they're worth at the cost of creativity and anything even mildly original. Oddly enough, this time around, that point doesn't fully hold true, but is still too flawed to keep it interesting for nearly three hours. 

The latest excursion into the dystopian future world of Panem echoes the original trilogy but does add a certain level of exposition that is just enough to make audiences care again. However, the delivery system is a mostly weak and two sided affair, making great use of callbacks but hardly adding anything new to a future we've already experienced in four other films. Neither Tom Blythe (Coriolanus Snow) or Rachel Zegler (Lucy Gray) have the dynamism or dramatic prowess of Jennifer Lawrence, making this a mediocre if not slightly acceptable continuation of the franchise. 

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes us back, many decades before Katniss Everdeen and her battle to survive against the odds. We're told the story of a young Coriolanus Snow and his rise to power, forsaking all those around him including his greatest love and his lifelong friend. The issue lies in the fact that we're expected to sympathize with a man that for all intents and purposes ends up murdering children by throwing them into a cage match to the death on an annual basis. Later in life, he engages in all out draconian measures, starving his people and killing anyone that doesn't follow the rule of law. Expecting us to fall in love with a known genocidal maniac doesn't quite work, even with the twists and turns the movie put us through. The study of his character is engaging but too far fetched to actually believe. 

At the risk of going against the grain, the three best parts of the movie are the primary villain, played by Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage as Dean Highbottom, and Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman doing his finest Stanley Tucci impersonation. The exceeding run time definitely begins to wear down its audience at times with repetitious story points and familiar side plots that carried us through the first set of four movies. We have friends turning on each other, planned revolts, young children being devoured by man's evil and a disallowed love story that never really seems to connect between its leads. 

Overall, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is not a terrible effort. It features some great scenes of tension, the editing is on point, and Viola Davis literally chews scenery like it's going out of style. Her character needed more time on screen instead of being relegated to minimal work. Her Dr. Volumnia Gaul is a far greater threat than President Snow ever was in The Hunger Games movies. Davis (in typical form) gives it her all, proving she's far greater than the script she's working with here. 

As much as I enjoyed this movie for what it is, it's another specimen of a studio that doesn't know when to let go. The teenage dystopian nightmare trend seemed to end a few years ago and is not really ready for a return to the entertainment world quite yet. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a decent additional chapter to The Hunger Games saga that lets us see how far the games have come in the decades between films, but it's not one that does enough to stand on its own. It's expected to do big box office numbers this weekend but probably won't have legs going into the holiday rush of big budget releases. But that really doesn’t matter. 

See it for the cinematic experience. Stay for Viola Davis proving she can uplift even the most basic of scripts. She alone makes it worth the watch.