Release Date(s)2023 (February 13, 2024)
Studio(s)Color Force/Good Universe/Lionsgate Films (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
Sixty-four years before the events depicted in The Hunger Games (2012), and ten years after the first Hunger Games was established by the Capitol of Panem to remind its twelve subservient Districts of the price of their failed rebellion, an ambitious young man named Coriolanus Snow (aka Coryo, played by Tom Blynth of Benediction and Billy the Kid fame) is struggling to preserve his family and restore its name. His father, Crassus Snow, was a Panem military general who was killed in the First Rebellion, leaving Coryo, his grandmother, and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer, Euphoria) on the verge of poverty and in danger of losing their home.
As a leading student in the Capitol’s elite Academy, Coryo hopes to win the prestigious Plinth Prize, which confers both wealth and favor upon its recipient, typically the student with the best grades. But at the ceremony, the Capitol’s head gamemaker, Dr. Volumina Gaul (Viola Davis, Fences), and Academy dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones) reveal that this year’s prize will instead be conferred upon the student that best mentors a tribute in the upcoming 10th Annual Hunger Games. It seems that the Hunger Games are losing their luster—no one in Panem actually wants to watch them—so it’s up to the Plinth candidates to change this.
Coryo is assigned to mentor the female tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, West Side Story). There’s only one problem: She doesn’t trust him. And Coryo is told that he’ll never win the Plinth Prize regardless of his efforts—Highbottom, a one-time friend of his father, intends to ensure it. Knowing that he’ll need to think outside the box to achieve his goals, Coryo realizes that what people enjoy watching most is spectacle… and that they’ll root for a likable underdog. But as he scrambles to earn Lucy Gray’s trust, Coryo becomes part of the spectacle himself. And soon, the unexpected happens—in his effort to get the audience to fall for Lucy Gray, Coryo begins to fall for her himself.
Based on the prequel novel by Suzanne Collins and directed by Francis Lawrence, who helmed all of the previous sequels in the series, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes attempts to walk a very difficult tightrope—the audience must like and invest themselves in the film’s leads, Coryo and Lucy Gray, even as you already know that the former will end up becoming a very cold, sinister, and calculating individual, played in the rest of the series by Donald Sutherland. So perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that it very nearly succeeds.
Blynth is quite simply terrific as Coryo, though Zegler is more of a cypher—sometimes precocious, sometimes vulnerable. It’s not that her performance is bad by any stretch; it’s that Blynth’s is so precisely calibrated that hers feels uneven by comparison. It’s hard to connect with her character’s emotional center of gravity, in part because this isn’t really her story—it’s Coryo’s. But Songbirds & Snakes still takes its time developing Coryo and Lucy Gray’s relationship, so you believe it when the couple’s literal and emotional fates begin to intertwine. Unfortunately, the film’s third act—set in District 12—feels far more obvious and rushed. So when the pair’s unlikely connection takes its final, inevitable turn, those developments feel less authentic… more in service of the plot than the characters.
Nevertheless, Lawrence’s direction is effective, the production design here is compelling, and the score (by returning composer James Newton Howard) is by turns edgy and melancholic, containing the sonic seeds of themes that familiar to fans of this series. Points also for a clever performance by Jason Schwartzman as “Lucky” Flickerman, the opportunistic weatherman who becomes the first TV host of the Hunger Games (and the ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s character from the previous films).
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes was captured digitally by cinematographer Jo Willems (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Red Sparrow) in the ARRIRAW codec (at 4.5K) using Arri Alexa Mini LF IMAX cameras with Arri Signature Prime spherical lenses, and it was finished as native 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for theaters. (Some scenes were framed at 1.90:1 for IMAX exhibition, but the UHD maintains the 2.39 framing at all times). For its release on Ultra HD, the film’s 4K source has been graded for high dynamic range (in both Dolby Vision and HDR10) and encoded on a 100 GB disc. The resulting image quality is excellent—not necessarily showy, but impressive in all aspects, with an average video data rate of 50-60 Mbps. Colors are well-saturated and accurate, if often subdued and stylized by design. Detail is clean and abundant, with highly-refined texturing. Contrast is broad, with deeply detailed blacks and bold highlights. It’s an impressive 4K presentation, just not one that’s really trying to dazzle the viewer with eye candy.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is presented in a fine home theater port of the English Dolby Atmos theatrical mix. This too is excellent, with a big, wide, and highly-immersive soundstage, superb clarity, and firm bass. Dynamics are rich and occasionally blustery when the action requires it, though the mix really shines in its subtle directional play and constant atmospherics. Movement is smooth and effortless, and the height channels are used to great effect to enhance the scale of interior spaces, particularly in the Capitol’s cavernous halls and arenas. The mix offers rich tonality that greatly enhances the film’s score, along with Zegler’s folksy vocal performances. Sonically, the audio experience supports the visuals well. English Descriptive Audio is also available, as are 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes in both Spanish and French. Optional subtitles are included in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
The 4K package is a 2-disc set that includes the film in 4K on UHD as well as 1080p HD on Blu-ray. Each disc includes the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with Francis Lawrence and Nina Jacobson
- Predator or Prey: Making the Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (HD – 8 parts – 150:43 in all)
- A Different World: Return to Panem (HD – 16:50)
- Songbirds & Snakes: The Acting Ensemble (HD – 25:27)
- Pure As the Driven Snow: The Music of Lucy Gray Baird (HD – 13:36)
- A Palette of Tactics: On Location in Poland and Berlin (HD – 22:02)
- Humanity Undressed: Costume, Makeup & Hair (HD – 25:39)
- To the Victor Go the Spoils: Stunts & Weapons (HD – 11:24)
- Inner Sanctum: The Post-Production Process (HD – 28:18)
- Snow Lands on Top: Reflections (HD – 7:23)
- The Hanging Tree: Sony by Rachel Zegler (HD – 2:26)
- A Letter to the Fans (HD – text feature)
- Theatrical Trailer 1 (HD – 1:36)
- Theatrical Trailer 2 (HD – 2:32)
- Theatrical Trailer 3 (HD – 2:42)
The audio commentary is quite good. Jacobson has been working on this film franchise since the very beginning, and Lawrence nearly so, which means they have lots of insights to share on the series and on the production of this film in particular. Zegler’s The Hanging Tree song is also present in its entirety and in lossless audio. And there’s A Letter to the Fans from novelist and screenwriter Suzanne Collins. It’s worth noting that while the film was shot in 2022, its post-production and release happened during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, so Collins was unable to participate in the special features. Fortunately, the strike ended in time for her to provide a statement of support for the film that could be included on the disc release.
But the highlight of this special edition is a feature-length documentary on the making of the film called Predator or Prey, by produced by Jonathan Mefford. It’s terrific, covering everything from the origins of the project and the casting to the location filming, the score, the production design, makeup, and costumes, the stunt work, the post production—you name it. Other than Collins, virtually every significant member of the cast and crew weighs in with their thoughts on the experience and its challenges. If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games (and of this film in particular), it’s a real treat—the kind of thoughtful and in-depth documentary experience we used to get a lot more often but is now rare indeed. Honestly, about the only thing that’s missing here are deleted scenes. Of course, you do get a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
It should also be noted that the audio commentary and the 8-part documentary are exclusive to the disc release, which proves that Lionsgate has their priorities straight when it comes to physical media. Bravo!
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes may not have performed as strongly at the box office as its predecessors, but it’s a well made and credibly-produced prequel that delivers nearly everything you want from a film in this franchise. And if its leads don’t quite exude Jennifer Lawrence levels of charisma, the cast here—especially Blynth, Dinklage, and Davis—deliver the goods. What’s more, Lionsgate’s disc experience is first rate. So this release is definitely recommended for fans of The Hunger Games… and of 4K discs.
- Bill Hunt