Even prior to the release of Red Dragon, the producers were giving thought on how best to continue their franchise. During interviews to promote Red Dragon, Anthony Hopkins revealed that he had written his own screenplay for a sequel to Hannibal which would have wrapped up the series with Clarice shooting Lecter, but it was never picked up. The future of the franchise was uncertain for many years with the producers going quiet about their plans. Behind the scenes though, Dino de Laurentiis was eager to move forward with a prequel detailing Hannibal's origins. He met with Thomas Harris and threatened to make a prequel without Harris' involvement unless Harris would come up with a story in a timely manner. It is almost certain then that the notoriously slow Thomas Harris rushed out his next novel, Hannibal Rising, in record time to retain creative control, while also writing the accompanying screenplay for the movie adaptation. I was able to find shockingly little information about this film's production history online, even less than Red Dragon, and this seems to be partially by design - the movie was kept a secret until only a few months before release. It seems that this was done in order to use the release of the novel as a springboard to generate hype for the film and prolong the book's own popularity by extension. Even then, very little details were known about the film ahead of time - various incorrect rumours less than 5 months before the film's release touted that the title would be Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask (perhaps changed because of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon?), that Anthony Hopkins would narrate the film, and that its final act would detail the time between Lecter's arrival in America and his capture by Will Graham.
Hannibal Rising would be directed by British director Peter Webber. While not a well-known director, he was coming off of a huge critical success with his debut film Girl With a Pearl Earring and so was an interesting choice. The role of a young Hannibal Lecter would go to French actor Gaspard Ulliel, while the supporting cast would be filled out by Gong Li and such prestigious character actors as Rhys Ifans and Dominic West. After the smaller box office take by Red Dragon, the budget was also scaled back from $78 million to just $50 million.
The first trailer wouldn't drop until mid-December 2006, just a month after the novel's release, with the movie itself set to release less than two months later. Universal passed on distribution of the film this time around and instead it was picked up by The Weinstein Company, hoping to score themselves a hit. It wasn't to be though because critical response to Hannibal Rising was scathing and the film opened to a modest box office take which quickly tapered off, bringing in on $82.2 million at the end of its worldwide gross... but honestly anything that makes Harvey Weinstein unhappy is a win for me.
The film opens in 1944 with an eight-year-old Hannibal Lecter having to flee his family's castle with his parents and little sister Mischa to avoid clashes between the Germans and Soviet Union. They retreat to a secluded cabin, but the war makes its way to the cabin and the parents are both killed during a skirmish. Hannibal and Mischa hide in the cabin until a group of five Axis deserters, led by the vicious Vladis Grutas, take shelter in the cabin. Low on food, the men decide to kill and eat Mischa in order to survive.
The film then moves forward eight years, with Hannibal back in Lecter Castle, which has been converted into an orphanage. Hannibal is still traumatized by his sister's deaths and lashes out violently at everyone around him until he escapes to Paris. Here he finds his newly-windowed aunt, Lady Murasaki. She teaches Hannibal about the culture of the samurai. Hannibal takes one of her family swords and uses it to kill a local butcher who had insulted Lady Murasaki and who was a well-known Nazi collaborator during the war. A French detective named Pascal Popil, who hunts down war criminals, suspects Hannibal of the killing but is unable to pin the crime on him definitively.
Soon after, Hannibal enters medical school, when he finally resolves to hunt down the men who killed his sister. He is unable to recall their names, but when he witnesses a criminal being injected with sodium thiopental he steals some for himself to remember the details of what happened in the cabin. When he does so, he remembers that a bag containing the killers' dog tags was left behind in the cabin when a bomber destroyed the building, which caused the deserters to flee and allowed Hannibal himself to avoid being eaten. Armed with this knowledge, he returns to Lithuania and finds the dog tags. However, one of the killers sees Lecter enter the country and follows him here, but Hannibal overpowers him and ties him to a tree. He tortures the man to find out where his compatriots are and then kills him when he finds out that one of the men, Kolnas, is in Paris and has been meeting with Grutas there.
Lecter goes with Lady Murasaki to a restaurant owned by Kolnas and slips Kolnas' dog tag to his daughter as a warning. Kolnas meets with Grutas and the other deserters to warn them about Hannibal. Grutas sends one of the deserters to kill Hannibal, but Lecter is waiting for him and drowns him in his laboratory. Hannibal attacks Grutas in his home shortly thereafter, but his bodyguards break in and save him before Hannibal can get the killing blow, forcing him to escape. In retribution, Grutas kidnaps Lady Murasaki and calls Lecter to draw him out before taking her to his houseboat. Hannibal goes to Kolnas' restaurant to find Murasaki and finds Kolnas there. He gets Kolnas to tell him where Grutas' houseboat is before killing Kolnas. Hannibal makes his way aboard and kills everyone to get to Grutas. Before killing him, Grutas reveals that the final deserter is hiding out in Canada and tells Hannibal that he too consumed his sister. This infuriates Hannibal and he carves up Grutas in brutal fashion before escaping the boat and blowing it up to fake his death. He then heads to Canada and kills the last deserter.
Hannibal Rising reminds me of Leatherface, in that it's a prequel that nobody asked for, turns the series' main psycho into a teen heartthrob, and which puts in way more effort than you would expect from a straight-forward origin story. I imagine that this is because Thomas Harris wrote the plot for this film instead of de Laurentiis handing it off to someone else. You can tell that Harris was legitimately trying to tell a fresh story and tread new ground with this character, rather than just make a bunch of references to things that will define the character in later movies (for contrast, see Solo: A Star Wars Story). In the "Making Of" documentary, Peter Webber himself acknowledges that they were trying to reinvent the franchise and I have to give them some acknowledgement for making an actual effort... unfortunately, Hannibal Rising is a mess that squanders this admirable attempt at ambition.
While the story of Hannibal Rising is a fairly standard revenge plot and it demystifies Lecter as a character, there's nothing inherently with it that would make for a fundamentally flawed film. Instead, it's the way that the story is told that cripples this film. One issue is that there are various disparate plot threads which never come together in a satisfying manner. Take the fact that a big deal is made of Hannibal Lecter, Lady Murasaki and Inspector Popil all having lost their families in the war. This feels like it's ripe for a thematic payoff, but it doesn't actually matter in the end that all of these people share a common thread, it's just something they mention from time to time. For that matter, Popil is supposed to be one of the main characters but he could easily be cut from the film and there'd be no difference made. It feels like he was added because there has to be an obligatory inspector character in a Hannibal Lecter movie, but he's so useless - he immediately knows that Hannibal is a murderer but does nothing about it, provides absolutely no barrier to Hannibal achieving his goals and then shrugs his shoulders and assumes Hannibal's dead at the end of the movie. Or what about the fact that the movie shows the bad guys burning photos of Hannibal's family for warmth? Oh no, they're symbolically tearing away the last connections he has to his family before they take Mischa away from him too! But no, like 15 minutes later we find out that Lady Murasaki has a bunch of photos of his family so it's another missed opportunity to tell a deeper story. There's so many little missed opportunities like these and when you think back on the film afterwards it makes the experience feel deflating.
There's also the first hour of the film, which is overstuffed to the point that it gets rushed through in order to get to the generic revenge plot. The first 20 minutes deal with Hannibal's childhood and rush through his parents' death (a Russian tank shows up in the middle of an open clearing and then within seconds a squad of Stukas pass by and kill the parents) before the bad guys show up. Then we get the revelation that Hannibal's been kept in an orphanage which used to be his parents' castle and is bullied by everyone there, especially a cruel overseer. That doesn't really matter though because less than 5 minutes later he's already escaped the orphanage and makes his way to Paris. Then we get Hannibal training in the traditions of the samurai, which gets boiled down to one training montage before he's out murdering dudes, heads off to medical school and decides that he wants to kill some Nazis. This break-neck pace means that characters have to be cartoonishly stereotypical. Need Hannibal to kill the butcher and make it feel justified? Quick, make him a two-dimensional racist, misogynist, Vichy asshole who's just begging to get sliced up! Need to make us feel bad about Hannibal going on a murder spree? Quick, make one of the deserters a father! On a related note, it's implied that Hannibal is so traumatized by his sister's death that he won't speak, but then he kills the butcher and is suddenly chatty as all hell with everyone. I believe that we're supposed to infer that confronting his trauma is therapeutic for him, but him going from silent to chatty happens so suddenly and unceremoniously in the film that I can't tell if we're just missing story beats or if having him be silent that long was a mistake. Perhaps the best analogy to describe the first half of this movie is that it feels like one of those crappy musician biopics where they just string together a bunch of important sequences from the person's life, but then don't bother to make them build upon one another to make a satisfying story. I feel like this half of the film has some of the most interesting ideas, but the rushed nature means that we don't get to enjoy it before we've gone and moved onto something else.
The rushed first half of the movie might get a pass if the second half made up for it, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie is just a dull revenge story that tries to turn Hannibal Lecter into a more violent cross between Batman and James Bond (oh hey, Batman Begins and Casino Royale came out a couple years before this movie, imagine that). If there is a theme in this movie it is "revenge makes you a monster", but that is such bog-standard, well-worn ground for this kind of story. I know that some people considered Hannibal an anti-hero in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, but he was still murdering people there whose worst act was that they were either in his way or kind of rude. In Hannibal Rising they have to make the people he kills unrepentant, cartoonish monsters. I've already covered Hannibal's first kill, the butcher, and how much of an asshole he is, but the film even has Inspector Popil straight-up tell us that it's basically fine that Hannibal murdered him. As for the deserters, not only did they all kill and eat Hannibal's sister, but they're also Nazi war criminals for good measure. Grutas is even worse, also being a sex trafficker and attempted rapist on top of everything else. With bad guys this shitty, it's hard to care when the film pulls a "ahh but Hannibal enjoys killing people, he's also a monster!"-style "twist" near the end. Sure, Hannibal's a bad guy too but everyone he kills in this movie deserves what they get and then some. If they had only eaten Hannibal's sister and nothing else then that might have put in some level of ambiguity, between being faced with a desperate survival situation and the revelation that Hannibal also partook of the soup made from Mischa's body. However, considering everything else these guys did, it's hard to feel bad for any of them as he tortures them all to death.
As for Hannibal himself, he's... fine, I guess. Gaspard Ulliel had impossibly big shoes to fill and I don't think that he quite managed to do it, although I feel like this is more down to the material rather than any failing on his part. Due to how strung together the plot feels at times, Hannibal's character varies wildly. At times he feels like a spoiled brat (such as, funnily enough, when he's at the orphanage in his family's former castle, it feels like he's just mad that it's not his anymore), at times he feels playfully evil (think Ramsay Bolton), other times he's just a rage-filled psycho, and sometimes he's just vampiric. I also find it kind of funny that the whole samurai angle means that you can accuse him of being a cultural appropriator and a weeb as well.
Meanwhile, Lady Murasaki is another missed opportunity. Early on it seems like she's going to be the one who turns Hannibal into the man we know, training him in the samurai arts to kill and giving him a code of honour to guide his morals. It even seems like this was the filmmakers intent, as in the making of documentary they state that she is supposed to be Hannibal's Aristotle, imparting her dark side upon the young man. However, this gets largely set-aside in the second half of the film as she suddenly gets cold feet about murdering the rest of the deserters when she finds out one of them has kids. Even worse, she gets turned into a goddamn damsel in distress in the final act, with Grutas constantly trying to rape her when she's in captivity. Oh... and then there's the weird romance between her and Hannibal which comes out of nowhere. Honestly, I had been thinking "damn, Hannibal and Murasaki are hot, pretty close in age and get along together, they'd probably make a good couple if they weren't related through marriage", but then I was caught completely off guard when the makeout session started. It's not even the first time I've seen this movie, but I had completely forgotten that that happened.
Anyway, I can definitely tell that my thoughts on Hannibal Rising are jumbled, but that's reflective of this movie's messy plot. While watching it I kept thinking that it was messy, but fine, but the more that I thought about it afterwards the less I liked it. I do feel like they put in a lot more effort to try to make the movie good than I would have expected, but the execution just isn't there. I can't imagine anyone seriously wanting to know how Hannibal Lecter became a monster and, despite some strong talent and decent direction, Hannibal Rising just doesn't justify the telling of this story.
...but the feast is not over yet. Be sure to tune in again soon for a very special bonus Retrospective finale to this series!