By Brian Rentschler
Short version: This is another superfluous, mediocre addition to the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Has this dead horse been beaten enough?
I think the Boy Scouts should add another merit badge to the list: Mediocre Movie Franchise Survival. I would certainly qualify for it; after all, this is the fifth movie I've seen that features Hannibal Lecter. One was excellent (The Silence of the Lambs), one was very good (Manhunter), one was terrible (Hannibal) and two were mediocre (Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising). This latest installment in the franchise left me with a feeling of ambivalence. I suspect most of the critics will end up complaining about how the teenage Hannibal is, in many aspects, blatantly different from the adult Hannibal. That is indeed a valid complaint, and I'll touch on that a little during this review, but the questions going through my mind were quite different. Why do we need to know more about Hannibal's younger years? Why do we need to understand his motivations and tribulations? The short answer is, we don't. It is better for some things to remain enigmatic, and the character of Hannibal Lecter falls squarely into that category.
There are quite a few things in life that are more exciting because there's an element of mystery to them. Hannibal Lecter didn't have the lion's share of screen time in Manhunter or The Silence of the Lambs, but that didn't stop him from having a major impact on the storyline. Indeed, much of the allure of his character stemmed from the fact that we didn't really know all that much about him. Whether it intends to or not, Hannibal Rising tries to throw most of that mystery out the window. It deigns to offer us an explanation for Hannibal's eventual metamorphosis into a psychopathic serial killer, as if such a thing could ever be explained from a logical and rational standpoint. It even expects us to empathize with him, but it never comes close to giving us a good reason to do that.
The story starts out in Lithuania, during World War II. Hannibal is a young child, and his baby sister Mischa means the world to him. The Nazis have invaded, and the Lecter family is on the run. His parents end up being killed by an aerial bombing, and Mischa suffers a rather unpleasant demise at the hands of some stranded Russian soldiers. The story then fast-forwards to eight years later. We see that Hannibal has grown up in an orphanage; ironically, that building was formerly Lecter castle, where he spent his early childhood years. The teenage Hannibal (played by Gaspard Ulliel) has no friends and he rarely says a word to anyone. He decides to run away from the orphanage and stay with his uncle's widow (played by Gong Li) in France.
Up until this point in the movie, the story is quite intriguing. However, things start to become very weird, very quickly. For starters, Hannibal and his aunt have a very close relationship; at times it almost seems incestuous. The other odd development is that she teaches him the art of sword fighting. At one point, I wondered if I was watching one of the Kill Bill movies. So now that Hannibal knows his way around a sword, would you care to guess what he ends up doing? After Hannibal commits his first murder, this is his aunt's opportunity to realize what a psychopath her nephew is, hand him over to the cops and move on with her life. Instead, she chooses to help Hannibal cover up the murder. Seems to me they both need some face time with Dr. Phil...
Shortly after this, Hannibal is accepted into medical school. It is during this time that he starts digging up old memories of his sister Mischa's death, and he vows to take revenge on every soldier who was involved. Most of them conveniently live in France now (of course), which is a great time-saver for a murderous psychopath who's always on the go. Hannibal isn't exactly subtle in his murder technique, so once again he quickly attracts the attention of the police. Inspector Popil (played by Dominic West), who specializes in war crimes, takes particular interest in Hannibal because he's aware of the circumstances surrounding the death of his family members. He asks Hannibal to help the police bring Mischa's killers to justice, but will he respond to logic and reason? Is it possible for anyone to reach him before he descends completely into his psychopathic abyss?
It's a considerably difficult task to rate this movie on its own merits, mainly because it's riding on the coattails of an established franchise. As such, it inevitably begs a comparison to the previous films. As played by Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal generally acts classy and has a quick wit. At times, he can even be charming. In this movie, he comes across as creepy and evil. How are we supposed to enjoy the movie if there's nothing for us to like about its protagonist? In the previous films, Hannibal tended to choose his victims randomly, with circumstances and opportunity being the primary motivating factors. In this movie, he chooses each of his victims for a specific reason, and he carefully plans most of the murders ahead of time. Why does such a difference in methodology exist between the teenage Hannibal and the adult Hannibal? We never find out. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Gaspard Ulliel looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins; he looks like a cross between Matthew Modine and Crispin Glover. Another minor annoyance is that in this movie, Hannibal spends his formative years in Lithuania and France, never setting foot in Britain, and yet in the other films he has a British accent.
Ultimately, though, my primary issue with Hannibal Rising is not with how consistently Hannibal is portrayed between the various movies; it is with the movie itself. The storyline is too simple and lackluster; the movie is basically a by-the-numbers revenge flick. That surprised me, considering the fact that Thomas Harris himself wrote the script, based on his book. There are quite a few clichés to be found in the script, most of which are spoken by Inspector Popil. (Example: "There is no word to describe him, other than... monster.") However, there is an especially poignant line spoken by Hannibal's aunt towards the end of the movie. It accurately sums up one of the biggest problems plaguing the entire franchise: "What is left in you to love?"
Overall, Hannibal Rising is not a terrible movie, but it's not a great movie either. It's just okay. I didn't find the violence and gore to be extremely graphic (at least not compared to Hannibal), but young children should not see this movie. Bottom line, if you just absolutely have to know everything about Hannibal Lecter's life and what (ostensibly) motivated his behavior, set your expectations appropriately low and go see it. Otherwise, you should just let him remain enigmatic, the way he was originally meant to be.