LOS ANGELES, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in theaters Nov. 17, is a perfectly fine Hunger Games movie. Based on Suzanne Collins' prequel novel, it makes up for a lack of familiar characters with provocative themes.
Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) will grow up to be president of the Capital and preside over the annual Hunger Games, in which 24 children of the 12 districts will fight to the death.
But, on the eve of the 10th annual Hunger Games, Snow is still a student competing for a scholarship prize. Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) announces that the final task for the prize is for all the capital students to mentor a combatant in the Hunger Games.
This will also become a tradition, as the characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in the main series were also trained for the games by a mentor.
The Hunger Games (2012) depicted the 74th iteration of the games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) the 75th. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 (2014) and Part 2 (2015) depicted a Civil War.
Snow is assigned Lucy Gray Bird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, the same district from which Lawrence's character came. Snow and his rivals will be judged on how good a show their combatants put on, not necessarily whether they win.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is divided into three parts, covering Snow's mentorship of Lucy Gray, the games and the aftermath of the games. There is action and intrigue, but more importantly, the prequel also continues the social commentary of the series.
The premise of The Hunger Games is an extreme depiction of what could happen when wealthy governments need to keep their impoverished subjects obedient. Each of the games has involved winning public favor in the media before and during competition.
So, the prequel is about how the Capital discovered the importance of the media apparatus. Inventor of the games, Dean Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), laments that viewership is down after nine years of Hunger Games.
Snow learns the importance of media while teaching Lucy Gray how to curry public favor. Meanwhile, Snow also develops the Machiavellian political savvy that will ultimately win him the highest dystopian office.
The film also shows how Snow's rivals fail to learn how to play politics. Their shortcuts don't pay off. Later, Snow will learn that conspiring makes unexpected allies, but costs him friends.
Snow never had a nickname as an elder politician, but in his youth, friends and family call him Corio for short. That is hard to take seriously when "Cory" was right there, but at least they don't call him Anus.
Hunger Games host Lucretius "Lucky" Flickerman excels in his role as comic relief. He gets the best lines, as he is the only character who can laugh about the morbid proceedings.
Lucy Gray sings songs written by Collins and Dave Cobb. The songs are her weapon in showmanship, and she also learns how she can wield or withhold that power as needed.
Some of the political subtext is too heavy-handed. Keeping the contestants in a zoo before the games is a bit on the nose. Snow declaring, "Snow lands on top" is maybe not the most subtle metaphor, either, but it comes from the book.
The prequel introduces several elements that are familiar to the main stories. The personalized drones that allow viewers to donate gifts to the combatants don't quite work right at this early stage, but Snow can use their malfunctions to Lucy Gray's advantage.
The middle section with Lucy Gray in the Hunger Games makes the battle exciting, which is missing the point that making children kill each other is supposed to be horrific. Lucy Gray does face the unpredictable nature of war when her defense strategies end up affecting unintended targets.
Director Francis Lawrence frames at least half of the movie from low angles, looking up at characters as if the camera were on the ground. This is not an effective stylistic flourish and looks awkward, especially when the camera is under characters who are kneeling.
Most of the movie takes place in real forests or sets, with only one glaring sequence in the arena that looks like disembodied actors in front of screens. Tactile locations make Songbirds and Snakes stand out from most other modern franchise movies.
Only fans of The Hunger Games will want to spend nearly three hours with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. But the prequel mostly matches the production values and thematic elements of the films whose stories it precedes.
Lionsgate will host early fan screenings of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in IMAX theaters Nov. 13.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.