The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a brutal Hunger Games return

rachel zegler, the hunger games the ballad of songbirds and snakes
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes reviewLionsgate

It's been eight years since Katniss fired her final deadly arrow and from the moment Suzanne Collins released a Hunger Games prequel in May 2020, it has felt inevitable that we'd return to Panem on the big screen.

While the decision to split Mockingjay in two affected the movies, the series remained a box-office draw and received a favourable critical reception. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes looks set to continue this trend as it proves to be a brutal, winning return for the series.

It has retained the impact of the other Hunger Games movies and the setting – 64 years before the first movie – invigorates certain aspects to bring a fresh take to this world while still delivering everything fans would want.

tom blyth and rachel zegler in the hunger games the ballad of songbirds and snakes
Murray Close/Lionsgate

In case you haven't read the book, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes us back to early post-war Panem. Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is the final hope for his family, keeping up appearances at the Academy as he struggles with next to no money.

His salvation could lie in the upcoming 10th Hunger Games, the first to feature mentors for the tributes. Unfortunately for Snow, the Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), holds a vendetta against him and assigns Snow as the tribute to District 12's Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).

The odds aren't exactly in Snow's favour, but when Lucy Gray begins to charm the Capitol's citizens, he begins to believe that he might have a chance to save his future as well as changing the fate of Lucy Gray.

She might not be the Mockingjay, but can Lucy Gray defy all the odds to become a victor in the arena?

the hunger games the ballad of songbirds and snakes official trailer

Although there might be some who question whether the history of Panem and the Hunger Games needed to be filled out, the decision over where to set the prequel proves to be a smart one. It's more interesting to see the person behind the villainous president we came to know rather than a prequel of Snow just being his usual evil self.

Tom Blyth is excellent in the challenging role, hinting enough at how Snow could become the person we knew, as well as highlighting the internal struggle. It's not an imitation of Donald Sutherland but a believable portrayal of an 18-year-old who has the desire to do everything he can to win, yet still battle the snake within.

A large part of this comes from his chemistry with Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird. Comparisons with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss are inevitable, yet Zegler's emotive and quietly powerful performance renders them moot. Lucy Gray isn't Katniss, her strength is her music not a bow, yet she's no less captivating as a lead.

Where Katniss offered plenty of stand-out moments for Lawrence to shine, Lucy Gray gives Zegler equally showstopping moments, among them an impromptu performance near the end of her Hunger Games, which is sensational – up there with the best sequences across the entire series.

rachel zegler, the hunger games the ballad of songbirds and snakes

If the structure is familiar (the build-up to the games, the games, and then the aftermath), then the setting adds a fresh perspective. This isn't the shiny Capitol we knew, with exceptional production design showcasing a city that strives to be the epitome of perfection but still struggles with the repercussions of war.

It's reflected in the central games, which feature early iterations of ideas such as drones and TV coverage, but in their rougher design stages. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman (later to be father of Stanley Tucci's Caesar, surely), a weatherman promoted to games commentator who misses major moments due to a forecast.

There's the same tactile feel to The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes as there was in the original movies, aided by the decision to shoot on location and as practically as possible. It's not only great world-building, but also heightens the impact of the games, where you feel every hit, the violence pushing the boundaries of a 12A rating.

the hunger games the ballad of songbirds and snakes official trailer

If anything, the Hunger Games section of the movie is so strong that the final part of the movie can't help but pale in comparison. There's nothing particularly wrong with it and the performances remain compelling, but it lacks the visceral thrill of the games and rushes certain developments.

It's likely a consequence of condensing a 500-odd page book into a 150-minute movie; it's inevitable some things will get slightly less room to breathe and make an impact, while certain characters, such as Viola Davis's quirky and chilling Dr Volumnia Gaul, don't get as much time as you'd want.

Even with this slight dip in the final act, the odds are definitely in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes's favour. It's sure to be a hit with fans and, who knows, maybe even set the stage for future games to come.

4 stars
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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is out now in cinemas.

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