SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains mild spoilers.
Amusing ourselves to death. That’s what media critic Neil Postman called the phenomenon that “The Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins took to its natural extreme, penning a dystopian YA trilogy whose four-film adaptation minted Lionsgate nearly $3 billion at the global box office. Much like “Harry Potter,” the book series whose Hollywood success made this franchise possible, the big-screen adaptations took a few false steps before hitting their stride with a single director — in this case, Francis Lawrence — who now returns to helm a prequel (far better than the “Fantastic Beasts” movies) that impressively expands the canon while honoring its key themes.
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“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” feels like a natural extension of the saga, balancing blood sport, endangered young love and a heightened level of political commentary that respects the intelligence of young audiences as only Collins can. Her message is less about resisting fascism than recognizing how systems use entertainment to distract and manipulate the masses. But even within that critique, Collins leaves room for a soulful folk singer — the title’s metaphorical songbird — to serve as the voice of resistance.
As reluctant tribute Lucy Gray Baird, “West Side Story” star Rachel Zegler represents a cross between Jennifer Lawrence’s selfless hero, Katniss Everdeen, from the original films; the beguiling Gypsy Esmeralda of Victor Hugo’s imagination; and a pop icon like Taylor Swift, who brings people together. Her songs are the highlight of a dark thriller that’s half an hour too long and frustratingly unclear in the final stretch. Then again, Hollywood has long since decided that audiences like their blockbusters bloated, and “Ballad” is but the latest to overdeliver.
Set more than six decades before Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place in totalitarian Panem’s annual kill-or-be-killed competition, “Ballad” features just one character whom audiences will recognize outright: future dictator Coriolanus Snow (previously embodied by Donald Sutherland), now an underdog cadet. That means, like “Cruella,” “Wicked” and “Maleficent,” this film focuses on a villain before he went bad, back when he was young, desperate and … hot.
The author believes that even a future Adolf Hitler must have been relatable at some point and, in keeping with the allegorical dimension of her books, that exploring what went wrong offers teachable moments for intellectually curious audiences. Here, young “Coryo” (as his close friends call him) is played by Tom Blyth, a dashing newcomer who previously played the lead in MGM+ series “Billy the Kid.” He’s tall, blond and tortured, not unlike the adolescent Anakin Skywalker that Hayden Christensen embodied — though Blyth is both dreamier and more relatable.
George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels are the most obvious antecedent for Collins’ revisionist novel. (Yes, “Ballad” is based on a book, although the source material might more naturally have been split into two films, or even spread across several seasons of TV.) Clocking in at an awesome 157 minutes, the epic-length movie opens with the 10th annual Hunger Games, cramming the cruel arena death match into its first half, then shifting its attention to the budding romantic connection between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray.
Lucy Gray belongs to a nomadic Roma-like group called the Covey, who were neutral in the Panem civil war that cemented the Capitol’s strength. When the fighting ended, these free spirits were forced to settle, and are now punished alongside citizens of the districts that revolted. As such, Lucy really ought to be exempt from the Reaping (the process by which contestants are randomly selected to represent their districts in the Hunger Games), but it suits Collins’ point to make her the purest of the lot: more martyr than action hero.
While it’s relatively easy to convince YA audiences to root for whichever young couple a movie puts forward, “Ballad” has to bend over backward to overcome the many reasons these two shouldn’t be together. For starters, Coriolanus is an obedient member of the Capitol’s Academy, making him Panem’s equivalent of a Hitler Youth, while Lucy Gray is effectively a human sacrifice — hardly the ideal dynamic between love interests. Though he goes the extra mile to assist her, his ambition tragically outweighs whatever emotion he feels for her.
Driven to feed his own starving family at home, Coryo hatches proactive suggestions to make the Hunger Games even more compelling amid a dip in ratings that might have justified canceling the barbaric practice. From Academy dean Casca Highbottom (a well-cast Peter Dinklage, who finds layers of conflict in his character), we learn that Coriolanus’ father, Crassus, was the one who implemented the games. While it might be poetic for a member of the Snow family to end them, audiences already know they continue for another 65 years under Coriolanus’ oversight.
Readers of the book will have a better understanding of the power structure of the Capitol, though the uninitiated may find themselves wondering who exactly is in charge. Coriolanus aligns himself with the Head Gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis at her most nefarious). Embracing the character’s camp potential, Davis sports eyes of different colors, a white-streaked Dr. Frankenstein hairdo and crimson costumes that would be at home in a “Cremaster” movie. Like practically everyone in the Capitol — except Coryo’s rebel-minded friend, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera) — Gaul fails to see the humanity in the citizens of the various districts.
In the previous “Hunger Games” movies, the series’ eponymous killing sprees eventually took a back seat to Capitol politics. “Ballad” tries to have it both ways, dedicating more than an hour to the 10th-anniversary arena competition, hosted by Lucretious “Lucky” Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), undoubtedly an ancestor to Stanley Tucci’s similarly flamboyant Caesar Flickerman from the other movies. Considering the project is obliged to find an all-new ensemble, returning casting director Debra Zane (along with Dylan Jury) does a terrific job of balancing future stars with proven talents.
Zegler might seem like an obvious choice, giving the role’s singing requirements, but “West Side Story” wasn’t a huge hit, and could have been a liability to this film’s box office. Taking the stage in a tattered but radiant dress (designed by Trish Summerville), she demonstrates a kind of inner light that even Spielberg couldn’t harness. Still, Lucy Gray’s reluctance to assume the lethal demands of the Hunger Games proves exasperating, as Coriolanus scrambles to find creative ways to help from the sidelines (by turning sponsorship drones into weapons and such). Rather than force her to dispatch everyone, Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt’s script (faithful to the novel) brings in a vat of poisonous snakes to speed along the result. The producers could have easily gotten away with letting the competition play out, wrapping the film there and saving the second half — in which Coryo is demoted to a Peacekeeper assigned to District 12 — for a separate film.
The last hour proves tricky for Lawrence to pull off, in part because the novel relied so heavily on Coriolanus’ interior thoughts. Stripped of that narration, the movie struggles to convey the turmoil he’s experiencing, pulled between his feelings for Lucy Gray and an even more powerful thirst for power. We all know where this is headed — Snow’s destined to become Panem’s authoritarian “president” — but there’s still enormous room for surprise and debate, even among readers of Collins’ prequel. Lawrence also takes the opportunity to plant (Katniss) seeds for the character’s decades-later downfall. Snow may be the winner for now, but his fate is preordained, and “Ballad” makes clear that his victory comes at a terrible price.
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