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By Mark Bell | February 11, 2007

Tell me, Clarice, when you go to sleep at night, do you dream of new adventures for Hannibal Lecter? Adventures that vary from his youth to his old age, hinting upon sophistication, childhood torment and a predilection towards the culinary arts? No!?! Dammit…

Just as the announcement of “Hannibal” as both a book and a feature film had me wondering “why” out loud, so too did the announcement of “Hannibal Rising” in both its incarnations. At least in reference to “Hannibal,” it was playing upon the public’s desire to find out what became of Anthony Hopkins’ brilliantly charismatic sociopath, and had a sense of closure to it. The re-filming of “Red Dragon” to include Hopkins seemed to be done solely for the purpose of the filling out the DVD box-set with familiar faces, as opposed to expecting people to get that the more accomplished “Manhunter” told the story better, albeit with Brian Cox playing Lecter. So it seemed the story was complete. Apparently not.

In “Hannibal Rising,” we meet Hannibal Lecter and his family while they are abandoning their family castle in Lithuania during World War II. Right on the frontline of the German-Russian conflict, the family couldn’t be in worse shape upon their retreat to a family cottage, especially when the fighting occurs on their front doorstep and ultimately claims, in the crossfire, the lives of mother and father Lecter. Alone with his young sister Mischa, Hannibal attempts to survive the cold winter, only to be interrupted by a rash group of war profiteers, lead by Grutas (Rhys Ifans), who stumble upon the cabin and decide to hide out the winter within. Of course, it being a particularly brutal winter, food is scarce and the hungry rabble decide that the children would make for the best sustenance, under the circumstances. Mischa becomes dinner, Hannibal does not (as the war once again intervenes and the gang flee, leaving Hannibal to be found by the Russians).

Hannibal finds himself in an orphanage, which just so happens to be set up in his family’s castle. Constantly bullied for his seeming mute-ness (despite crying out nightly as he dreams of the horrors inflicted upon his sister), Hannibal gets a hold of some family letters, realizes he has family in Paris, and flees the castle.

Now in Paris, Hannibal meets up with the widow of his uncle, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who tutors him in the ways of the samurai (seriously) as well as stoking a not-so-innocent love between the two. After a butcher harasses Lady Murasaki at a market, Hannibal finds his first victim and, the brutal murder suiting him, decides to hunt down the men who ate his sister.

While “Hannibal Rising” attempts to explain where the man who would later grow to kill the rude and eat their flesh got his humble beginnings, it lacks a number of explanations towards the nuances of the character as brought to life in the other books and movies. While this Lecter is intelligent, his sophistication seems to be given him by unseen forces, as opposed to learned over a period of time. In fact, Lecter jumps from mute to suave murderer to prized medical student so quickly you really wonder where it came from. Other than the samurai training, you don’t see him being instructed in the ways of polite society, and his hatred of rudeness, as seen in the later incarnations, is almost completely lacking.

This is essentially a by-the-numbers revenge film with some attempts at deeper characterization. The difference between this film and, say, “Batman Begins” is that Bruce Wayne, upon finding the tormentors of his youth, never tried to kill and eat them. And yet, given the actions in the film, you both cringe at Hannibal’s revenge tactics and, at the same time, allow them to have a certain justification. In fact, this comparison of evil (Rhys Ifans’ brutal murderer and Lecter’s brutal murderer), and the justifications for the latter while lacking for the former, causes there to be an almost heroic quality to Hannibal’s fierceness. This quandary, of course, is off-set by a police inspector constantly referring to Hannibal as a monster, to remind the audience that, you know, this stuff, regardless of what may’ve happened to you as a kid, ain’t cool.

There are certain nods to the later stories, such as having numerous wild boars seen in Lecter’s homeland (comes back to bite in “Hannibal”) and of course the imagery of the half-masked Hannibal with those bars-for-teeth. Instead of being protection for his captors, as in the latter films, Hannibal’s mask in this film is part of a samurai costume, solidifying the idea that the mask is, was and will forever be a part of “costume Lecter.” Necessary? Not really, but it does look neat on the poster.

All told, I was surprised at how much I liked the film, despite its flaws. Unveiled at a deliberate pace not befitting the way the film was marketed (all flash and horror), the film fits in fine with the franchise to which it was built into. My biggest problems involved logic lapses as they relate to the later films, mainly in that, by the end of this film, the name Hannibal Lecter, in Europe, is one to be feared and investigated, as the murders, while not being proven, all point directly to him. And yet we are to believe that, as the other books and films show, that he rose to some prominence as a doctor and man of the world before any suspicians came about, and by that point, he wasn’t killing out of the justifications in this film, but rather because he liked it.

The above being said, I do hope this is the last of the Hannibal Lecter films. So far, despite a mis-step here or there, the grouping that currently exists isn’t a horrendous abomination to cinema like it could’ve been. Still, something tells me Thomas Harris won’t be done until we find out how Hannibal finally dies, so we might have one film left to go…

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