If your favorite restaurant were run like Hollywood, your dining experiences would go like this: One night, you would have a meal where everything worked: Crisp salad, well-made main course, excellent side dishes, ace dessert, the perfect wine. Heck, you even though the parsley sprig was a jaunty touch. You'd be saying this as you left, and the maitre'd would hear you and write a note down. The next time you go there, you're offered ... a huge plate with two pounds of parsley on it. This is what's happened with the character of Hannibal Lecter. Lecter was a minor character in Thomas Harris's 1981 book Red Dragon; he re-appeared in 1988's The Silence of the Lambs with an expanded role, but was still one character among many.
Silence of the Lambs got made into a 1991 movie -- a disposable January thriller release most notable for Anthony Hopkins's homicidal hissy-fit turn as Lecter -- that went on to win five separate Oscars. Interestingly, super-producer Dino De Laurentiis -- who had made Red Dragon into Michael Mann's Manhunter -- had the right of first refusal to any subsequent on-screen use of the characters, and passed on Silence of the Lambs. (Manhunter was a flop; it's also, unequivocally, the best mystery of the lot, and it holds up far, far better than every Harris adaptation -- even Silence of the Lambs.)
If you squint, you can imagine De Laurentiis clenching a fist and vowing 'Never again!" Then, between a sick synergy of Laurentiis's greed and Harris's pandering for book sales, Hannibal Lecter became a cottage industry: Hannibal, the book and the movie. A wildly unnecessary new film version of Red Dragon. And now, the prequel Hannibal Rising, which answers several questions: Where did Hannibal come from? What made him what he is?
... It does not, however, answer the better question: Who fricking cares? Like Santa, or the Bogeyman, villains like Lecter get less interesting the more you explain them; interestingly enough, it seems Harris used to get that. In Red Dragon, it's explained that Lecter "collects church collapses recreationally"; to him, they're proof of the Godless universe of arbitrary evil he lives and kills in. The more psychobabble you pour over a character -- especially the thick, gloppy layers of backstory and motivation Harris has applied to his best-known character after the fact -- the more they lose definition, and the more they lose shape. Originally, Hannibal Lecter was a terrible shadowy presence; in recent years, and for no reason other than further profit, we've learned about his hopes, his dreams, his family ... as the books, and films, have become increasingly gothic bores.
In Hannibal Rising, we get to see Hannibal's youth and young manhood -- enduring atrocities during World War II, finding something like family in post-war Paris ... and seeking to avenge himself on the men who killed his parents and, yes, ate his sister in the dying days of the war. The child Hannibal is played by Aaron Thomas; the young man Lecter, by Gaspard Ulliel. Thomas doesn't have much to do other than look scared and enjoy the occasional moment of tenderness; Ulliel doesn't do much other than look scary and enjoy the occasional morsel of tender flesh.
Hannibal Rising is directed by Peter Webber; Webber's adaptation of the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was a fascinating look at art and power, class resentment and brutal struggle. And here, he's relegated to making a high-minded, homicidal period piece -- a big, brown, slow-moving hulk of a film -- and hamstrung at every turn by Harris's adaptation of his own novel. Harris seems to have lost sight of one of the key principles of thriller construction: having everyone in the story be dumber than your lead character is not the same thing as having a lead character smarter than everyone else in the story.
Before the baroquely gory Hannibal and the bloated, lazy re-make of Red Dragon, Lecter was scary because he was smart -- able to manipulate locked handcuffs off his wrists through planning, guile and resolute action -- pulling strings on people who thought they were the puppeteers. In Hannibal Rising, all Lecter seems to be is a well-dressed young man with a cruel smirk and a taste for revenge. Yes, he's tricky and committed, but the character's pretty much become Freddy Kruger for the NPR set -- an invincible murderer with impeccable taste in classical music.
Hannibal has friends -- he's taken in by Hiroshima survivor Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li) and befriended, cautiously, by Paris cop Pascal Popil (Dominic West). He also has enemies -- played by a ragtag collection of British character actors including Richard Brake, Kevin McKidd and Rhys Ifans, these are the men who turned Hannibal's sister into food and, years later, will pay for their crimes. And let's be honest -- if you're going to write a suspense film about a character we know is hale and hearty 50 years later, you have to crank up the tension in other areas, which Hannibal Rising absolutely fails to do. Add in some incredibly clunky dialogue ("I would think his face was eaten by the ravens." "Would the ravens make a shish kebab?") and cliché-ridden plot moments (there's a scene here that will warm the heart of every urban legend cop who carries a Bible in his breast pocket) and what you're left with is a colossal bore.
Visually, Hannibal Rising liberally borrows from prior installments in this series -- we see everything from wild boars to bell jars, facemasks to ravaged cheeks. It doesn't add to the iconic resonance of the character; it makes you, at best, want to watch Manhunter or Silence of the Lambs again, to eat a full meal instead of being offered more and more parsley in larger and larger servings.
I'm as much of a capitalist as the next person who pays their own rent, and probably more so; I don't demand that every film be made in a moneyless, thin atmosphere of pure artistic ambition. But if you're making a film just to make money -- and Hannibal Rising is the epitome of that cruel, cold calculus -- then you had better make it well; make it entertaining; make it interesting. Hannibal Rising fails in that regard. Hannibal Rising wants to be a chronicle of the meteoric ascendance of one of crime fiction's more memorable characters; instead, it's a slow, sliding fall made of sputtering echoes and flashes of better images from other, earlier films. This, I guess, is how a franchise ends (unless De Laurentiis and Harris combine their avarice to craft a tale of Hannibal tooling around Kennedy-era America, just for funsies and more money): Not with a bang, but a whimper.