It shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is practically a musical. The implication is right there in the title. The film’s heroine, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), is a traveling singer selected for the titular battle royale to the death that made Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen famous in the four prior installments of this franchise.
Katniss is nowhere to be found here; her battle isn’t for another 64 years. Instead, this is yet another tired entry in the “origin story” subgenre. “Songbirds & Snakes” is all about the rise of Coriolanus Snow, the psychopathic president who rules the nation of Panem and all of its districts. He oversees the deadly games, which serve as punishment for an earlier rebellion against the government.
In the original “Hunger Games” series, Snow was played by Donald Sutherland, an actor adept at portraying fascists (see Bertolucci’s 1976 epic, “1900″ for a chilling example). Here, he’s played at 18 by Tom Blyth, whose short, blond haircut evokes both Draco Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” series and the teen who sang “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at the end of Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.”
But this isn’t your grandson’s Hunger Games; this is an earlier incarnation that hasn’t yet been shaped into the one Katniss endured. Created by the morphine-addicted Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the “Hunger Games” TV show has fallen out of fashion with its bloodthirsty viewers and will need to be tweaked. Enter the sleazy host Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman, wearing a mustache he stole from a Wes Anderson film’s makeup box) to enliven the proceedings.
For this 10th iteration, the district selections (called “tributes”), who must kill each other down to the last person standing, will be mentored by members of a more privileged class that includes Snow and his bestie, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera). This feature will give audiences a chance to emotionally bond with the tributes. Fans can also help their favorites during the Games by voting to send them water or food. The mentor whose charge wins will receive the Plinth Prize, a sizable cash payout.
Snow’s family has fallen on hard times since the death of their big-shot patriarch. If Snow can win the Plinth Prize, he’ll have enough money to keep up appearances. And yes, the Plinth Prize is named after Sejanus’s father, the richest man in Panem. Sejanus thinks the games are barbaric, so he signs up to be a mentor as a means of destroying the Games from within.
Lucky for Snow, he gets to mentor Lucy Gray. She’s a feisty, defiant one! When she gets chosen from her district, she stuffs a handful of snakes down a rival’s back and sings one of the film’s numerous songs, all of which sound like Celtic ditties written by a very bad country star. The deeply empathetic Lucy Gray is also somewhat efficient at battle.
Lest I forget, she’s an incredible bore compared to Katniss, so fans of Lawrence’s character won’t have a commensurate stand-in.
Snow gets all swoony for Lucy Gray and tries to help her out whenever possible. She starts to have feelings for her enemy as well. Suddenly, the movie turns into “West Side Story: Dystopia,” and you can’t tell me that this isn’t the intention of the filmmakers. Not only did Zegler play Maria in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” she’s reunited with Rivera, who played Chino.
Though she’s a fantastic singer, Zegler is cursed with a hilariously awful Appalachian accent that makes her sound half-”Hillbilly Elegy” and half-Huckleberry Hound. Though she acquits herself nicely in the violent middle hour devoted to the Games, it’s hard to muster up any interest in her character or the dopey wannabe love story that entraps her.
Even worse, unlike the other films, we barely get to know the tributes fighting opposite our hero. This eliminates much of the tension required to give their deaths any power.
Despite its blandness, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” does have one saving grace. Viola Davis plays Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the first architect of the Games and the film’s main villain. Dr. Gaul is a sadist of the highest order — she makes gorgeously colored snakes that swiftly swarm and devour their victims — and she rules the movie while wearing one blue contact lens, a ton of makeup, and an Afro wig the size of Jupiter.
With a regal-sounding accent as suspect as Zegler’s cornpone country one, Davis is obviously having a ball. It’s infectious. The movie comes alive whenever she’s onscreen.
Apparently, enough fans wanted this story because “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins wrote the book back in 2020 and Lionsgate brought back director Francis Lawrence, who has helmed every prior installment but the first movie. Even if you’ve only seen one of these films, you won’t need to spend 156 minutes witnessing the rise of a madman whose actions never required any backstory in the first place.
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES
Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Starring Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Josh Andrés Rivera, Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman. 156 min. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. PG-13 (bloody battles, drug use)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.