Two hours and 37 minutes is pretty long for a "ballad," but you can't call it "The Hunger Games: The Three-Cycle Opera of Songbirds and Snakes" now, can you?
Concision was never much in favor in the four "Hunger Games" films, which reached a seeming finale with 2015's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2." The intervening years have done nothing to shrink the ambitions of this unapologetically gaudy dystopic series where the brutal deaths of kids are watched over by outrageously styled Capitol denizens with names like Effie Trinket.
That clash of YA allegory and color palette is just as pronounced, if not more so, in "The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," a prequel set 64 years before the original books, adapted from Suzanne Collins' 2020 book of the same name.
"The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," which opened in theaters Thursday, is an origin story of the Hunger Games, themselves, as well as numerous characters -- primarily the devious President Coriolanus Snow, played by Donald Sutherland in the first four films. Here, Snow is an impoverished but opportunistic 18-year-old student played by Tom Blyth.
Just as in the "Hunger Games" films led by Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen, the new one proves how much you can sacrifice in story when you've got a thrilling young performer commanding the screen.
Francis Lawrence's prequel often wobbles, especially in the early going. And yet, in the end, "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes," propelled by Blyth's performance, manages to be the deepest expression yet of the series' melodrama of adolescence. In Panem, the only thing more tragic than the suffering inflicted by adults on the young may be a bright kid warping wickedly into one of those elders, too.
"The Hunger Games" kicked off a YA craze in film that had its ups and downs but petered out several years ago. Whether "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is enough to relight those embers remains to be seen, but it is a reminder how good a platform they offered young actors. It's a ritual worth returning to.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes," a Lionsgate release is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for strong violent content and disturbing material. Running time: 157 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.