“Hannibal Rising” is like “Muppet Babies” or “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” but with more cannibalism. The film aims to expand the popular series about psychotic cannibal Hannibal Lecter by taking the audience back to the beginning. But like similar experiments, such as “The Exorcist: The Beginning,” it’s a storyline no one needed to know.
The Dr. Phil–esque analysis of what made Hannibal a cannibal kicks off in 1944 in Lithuania. Invading armies on all sides force the Lecter family to flee from its Gothic castle to a cottage in the woods. The parents are swiftly killed, and young Hannibal is left alone to look after his baby sister, Mischa.
A roaming band of thugs arrive. They munch frozen birds Ozzy Osbourne style, and they burn the family photos to keep warm. It’s disturbing, or at least it would be, if the people in the audience could keep from laughing. Or walking out of the theater.
The thugs make plans to cook Hannibal’s little sister for dinner, and, eight years later in a Russian orphanage, the teenage Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) is still haunted by her grisly demise. He carves out a plan (no pun intended) to exact revenge on the killers who scarred his childhood. His first kills are gory enough, but the audience must wait before Lecter develops his taste for flesh, let alone with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Ulliel’s generic glare and occasional licking his lips hardly live up to the iconic image of Lecter that will always belong to Anthony Hopkins.
As he stumbles through lame dialogue, Ulliel’s performance is like watching Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker in “Attack of the Clones.” One can’t keep from wondering, This little punk is supposed to become a deranged cannibal?
Worse than Ulliel’s dull performance are the film’s wasted talents. The lovely Gong Li (“2046,” “Shanghai Triad”) spouts awkward Japanese-esque lines as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Lecter’s distant aunt and, creepily, his unrequited love.
“Memory is like a knife. It can hurt you,” she tells Lecter, as though she were quoting from “Deep Thoughts” by Jack Handey.
It also hurts to watch Dominic West, the brilliant star of HBO’s “The Wire.” West plays Inspector Pope, the debonair detective type, out to stop Lecter before he can strike again. Pope is like a cheesy hodgepodge of Hercule Poirot and Inspector Clouseau, who speaks in a broken French accent and pronounces “guillotine” as “gillo-teen.”
Director Peter Webber, who operated nicely in a European setting with his previous effort, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” keeps the scenery looking pretty and the shadows on Lecter’s smirking face vaguely intriguing. But Thomas Harris’ narrow script is about as hollow as Lecter’s heart. The pacing of the film feels too eager to rush through the parts when Lecter still had some humanity and gets right to the slaughter.
Though Harris wrote the original novel “Silence of the Lambs,” as well as “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon,” “Hannibal Rising” marks the writer’s first attempt at screenwriting. Like the author’s most famous character, there’s something cannibalistic in the way Harris continues to return to his original creation, picking at its legacy until there’s nothing left.
Despite the substantial corpse count in “Hannibal Rising,” the most disturbing parts of the film do not come from the scenes during which people are killed, disemboweled or having their flesh eaten. It’s the ending, which, without giving much away, leaves open room for yet another sequel. If this film is a success, there’s nothing to stop someone from making “Son of Hannibal” or “Return of the Curse of the Creature’s Ghost of Hannibal.” As with the “Rocky” series, that other Best Picture-turned-cynical franchise, it’s certainly possible.
“Hannibal Rising” is written by Thomas Harris and directed by
“Hannibal Rising” received 1 1/2 out of 4 stars.