There are certainly worse things in this world than Peter Webber’s Hannibal Rising (Norbit, anyone?), but it might be hard to find anything more utterly superfluous. Maybe it’s because I’ve never taken the Hannibal Lecter character all that seriously that I never considered the need for a prequel. I mean, come on, the Hannibal of popular film and literature would have to have an IQ of at least 2,000.
Hannibal may be based on Ed Gein (what serial killer is not?), but old Ed looked like a fellow who had trouble crossing an “X” by way of a signature. Hannibal, on the other hand, could come up with the Theory of Relativity while playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B with one hand, painting a Rembrandt with the other, and offering advice on the best Saville Row tailor as an afterthought—with time out to colorfully eviscerate his latest victim. Such a fantastic creature just is the way he is—or so he should be. As a result, I never wondered how a nice little boy from Lithuania (I’m not even sure I knew he was Lithuanian before) turned into the world’s wittiest and most sophisticated practitioner of creative homicide. Unfortunately, his creator, Thomas Harris, decided to tell us anyway—mostly, one assumes, because he figured there was at least one more quart to be squeezed out of his cash cow. What he gives us is more like a half-pint of soybean juice.
Harris’ premise is a pretty simple one: Hannibal suffered childhood trauma. What a weighty concept! It all comes down to the fact that when the Lecter family flees their castle to hide in their hunting lodge on the estate (… a location seemingly within sight of the castle), everybody but young Hannibal (newcomer Aaron Thomas) and his little sister Mischa (newcomer Helena Lia Tachovska) expires in an explosive encounter between a Russian tank and a Nazi Stuka. (A lesson is learned: Never shoot down a plane that is aimed right at you.) Left to their own devices, the toddlers are soon beset by unwelcome wannabe SS traitors turned looters, who, when food becomes scarce, decide that fricassee of Mischa is what’s for dinner. (This background story is pieced together like it’s some Big Revelation, despite the fact that it’s painfully obvious that Mischa was going to be mighty good with mustard from the onset.)
Hannibal finally escapes their clutches, is rescued by the Russian army, and eight years pass. Young Hannibal (now played by Gaspard Ulliel, A Very Long Engagement) has ended up a mute (well, he screams “Mischa!” in his sleep) living as a ward of the Soviet state in Lecter Castle, which has been turned into the People’s Orphan Asylum. After stabbing a bully in the hand with a fork (and making sure the ruffian walks into a bear trap), Hannibal escapes to France to find his uncle. Instead, he finds his uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who takes him in, trains him in the use of the Samurai sword (yes, really), seems to become his lover, and mutters “Hannibal” a lot while Hannibal mixes medical school with murder. She seems to object very little when he offs a butcher (Charles Maquignon, Brotherhood of the Wolf) who insulted her (in fact, she covers for him), but becomes concerned when he starts revenging himself on the gents who dined on his sister.
As a basic—albeit twisted—revenge story, it’s passable enough, even if one might rightly question just how Hannibal got a French passport and is able to travel into Lithuania with no problem in the 1950s. As part of the Hannibal Lecter story, however, it just doesn’t work all that well. Beyond the central problem that we know where it’s going (he has to get away with it because we’ve seen his later antics), there’s a dull, repetitive quality to it all. It’s too “track down one of the miscreants, torture information out of him, kill him, and eat his cheeks” (apparently, the taste for liver and fava beans is something he acquired later). Worse, it’s humorless and all so self-important (hey, this is a tarted-up slasher movie, not high art). What can you do with a movie that doesn’t seem to find the line, “You ate my sister,” at least mildly amusing? (OK, so maybe it doesn’t rank up there with the outraged complaint, “Your mother ate my dog,” in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), but it could be in the same black comedy ballpark.)
In the end, though, it’s the fact that the movie just can’t sell the idea that Gaspard Ulliel’s Hannibal is ever going to mature into Anthony Hopkins’ complex monster, and without that, Hannibal Rising is nothing but a slick exercise in futility. Rated R for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references.