Johnny Oleksinski

Johnny Oleksinski


‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ review: Needs a better ending

Now that 11 years have passed since “The Hunger Games” first hit theaters, it’s impossible to spoil these movies anymore. 

So, I can reveal to you without any shame whatsoever that in the fifth film of the franchise, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” a bunch of teens kill a bunch of other teens.

Shocking, I know.

movie review


Running time: 157 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong violent content and disturbing material). In theaters Nov. 17.

But this time, to up the ante, the story does double duty as a Katniss-free prequel about how the villainous president of Panem, Coriolanus Snow, became so heartless. 

Considering we go in already knowing that he turns into Donald Sutherland, that’s unspoilable, too. The film is a road-to-evil journey like Disney’s “Cruella,” “Joker” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” only strewn with young-adult corpses, silly clothes and Roman names.

The trouble is that by the end of the over two-and-a-half-hour movie, directed by Francis Lawrence, viewers still can’t quite put their fingers on why Coryo (Tom Blyth) picks the nasty path he ultimately does. Is it a basic lust for power? A lightbulb realization that survival is more important than morality? Who knows? 

A lot is shoved into a long and anticlimactic third act, but we’re left hungry for a meatier conclusion.

“Songbirds and Snakes” is set during the 10th annual Hunger Games — a televised battle to the death that pits 24 low-class kids against each other in an arena — 64 years before the events of the first film. 

“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is a prequel that explains the origins of President Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth).
Murray Close/Lionsgate

They’re lorded over by Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, doing a fun mashup of Annalise Keating from “How To Get Away With Murder” and Ursula the Sea Witch) and Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). 

Coriolanus, whose family has fallen on hard times, is a high-achieving student at the Academy in the Capitol and needs to win a big cash prize at graduation to attend the University. In order to secure the money, Dean Highbottom says Coryo must mentor a tribute in the Hunger Games all the way to bloody victory. 

That unwitting warrior is Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, Katniss Everdeen’s eventual home that looks like a West Virginia mining town. When she isn’t running away from knife-wielding killers, Lucy enjoys singing angsty protest songs.

Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler) is chosen as a tribute from District 12 in the Hunger Games.
Murray Close/Lionsgate

At first Coryo wants Lucy to triumph so he can get his dough, but a romance blooms as he watches her from afar. Once the games are over, there’s still an hour left to go, so he follows Lucy back to District 12. 

What happens there is mostly underwhelming after, ya know, watching 23 people violently die. Despite the lacking wrap-up, “Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is, like most of the “Hunger Games” films, a well-made dystopian yarn that’s better acted than it needs to be.

Blyth, who is that vampiric heartthrob type that’s very in-Vogue at the moment, manages to be both scheming and likable. We root for Coriolanus even though we shouldn’t. 

Viola Davis plays Hunger Games gamekeeper Dr. Volumnia Gaul.
Murray Close/Lionsgate

And he creates a spark with Zegler, who finally gets to show some edge that she certainly wasn’t able to as Maria in “West Side Story” or in the godawful DC disaster, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” Yes, the actress radiates musical-theater goodness, but Lucy has a hint of badass to her, too.   

Don’t get too used to Zegler the rebel, though. She’ll soon play the title role in Disney’s “Snow White,” which, last time I checked, contains seven dwarves and zero brutal murders.