The 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) — future president of Panem, eventual tormentor of Katniss Everdeen — begins “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” with his stomach growling. This slow-burning prequel by the franchise’s returning director Francis Lawrence rewinds six and a half decades in the life of the despot (played in the other films by Donald Sutherland) to find young Snow tinkering with the 10th Hunger Games, a rinky-dink massacre hosted by a weatherman (Jason Schwartzman). (Katniss would suffer the 74th.) Only its designer (Viola Davis) sees the potential in developing a Grand Guignol.
Aggrieved that the outer districts bombed his hometown and obliterated his family’s wealth, Snow is hungry and he’s playing two strategic games. First, he must convince his snobbish schoolmates that he belongs among the Capitol’s well-fed elites. Second, he must ace his final project: Boost the blood bath’s ratings by coaching a sacrificial tribute into a telegenic star. As class assignments go, it’s a candy bar fund-raiser combined with care-taking a hard-boiled egg.
Fortunately, Snow is assigned a stunner named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the only girl in the coal-mining District 12 who wears mascara. Better still, upon being selected for death, Lucy Gray belts a bitter shanty. Surprise! This is (moderately) a musical. Once we stop snickering, things improve. We even enjoy the later numbers in which Zegler, launched into fame as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” downshifts her Broadway pipes into a reedy, expressive Dolly Parton twang.
Compared to Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic Katniss, Zegler’s Lucy Gray looks and acts like a meringue — she’ll drizzle sugar all over Snow to save her life. We don’t buy their first kiss, and the screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, working from Suzanne Collins’s 2020 novel, barely try to convince us. Better scenes expose the fragile alliance between Zegler’s calculated Miss Congeniality and Blyth’s dystopian spin on Scarlett O’Hara, a blustering striver petrified that others will notice his tuxedo shirt has buttons made of bathroom tile.
By design, the gladiatorial sequences are a crumpled Xerox of the first movie. The gag is they’re a low-budget prototype — “These drones are not very good!” Schwartzman yelps — but there’s no excuse to rehash multiple plot beats. The third act, however, is shrewd and gripping, even if the strongest elements of Collins’s novels remain difficult to film. The child-on-child brutality must be tamed to PG-13 while the knotty political cynicism would unspool smoother in a Ken Burns mini-series.
In lazier Y.A. tales, Chosen One saviors are championed; Collins argues that everyone is corrupt. Here, sneers of “rebel” and “terrorist” are hurled from both sides, while Snow, raised to believe he’s a victim, never asks what his executed father might have previously done to the districts. When the school’s new-money outcast (an empathetic Josh Andrés Rivera) dares question the status quo, he’s pilloried.
Lawrence sketches the Capitol as an expanse of Stalinist blocks where Peter Dinklage, playing the Games’s vengeful creator, skulks around dressed like Rasputin. The costumer Trish Summerville brings her own addition to Lucy Gray’s rainbow rags: an embroidered flower bodice akin to the folk dress of Ukraine. Our world so hauntingly echoes Collins’s fictions that the film, shot last summer, moves us to spend its gargantuan running time reflecting on contemporary headlines, mourning the generational tragedy of anger and fear begetting anger and fear.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Rated PG-13 for largely bloodless child death and disturbing content. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. In theaters.