Does evil need to be explained? It apparently is not possible for the most sinister of figures to not have an origin story revealing how said figures came to be the way they became. Hannibal Rising is the origin story of that most monstrous yet fascinating of psychopaths, Hannibal Lecter. It is a terrible shame though, that his origin turns out to be surprisingly boring to dumb.
Little Hannibal Lecter survived the Nazi and Soviet invasions of his native Lithuania, though he lost his whole family. Lithuanian collaborators take refuge in the Lecter hunting lodge, where their leader Grutas (Rhys Ifans) looks on menacingly at Hannibal and his younger sister Misha. Did Grutas and his fellow Nazi collaborators commit a barbaric act of cannibalism to save themselves?
Eight years later, young Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) is now in a Lithuanian orphanage, ironically enough what was once Castle Lecter. After taking murderous revenge on a bully, he finds letters that lead him across the Iron Curtain to an uncle's home. His uncle sadly has died, but his widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) takes him in. She trains him in the way of the samurai, training that comes in handy when a local butcher insults her. Hannibal now has his first kill.
Escaping to Paris where he can train as a doctor, Hannibal and Lady Murasaki now begin their new venture: hunt down those who killed Misha. Slowly, methodically, Hannibal takes bloody revenge on his childhood tormentors, until he leaves for Canada to find the last of them.
Perhaps it was Hannibal Rising screenwriter Thomas Harris' wish to make our murderous cannibal a sad, even sympathetic figure. He should know the most about Lecter: as Harris adapted his own novel and created the character. Having said that, it is a wonder why Harris opted to make Lecter some kind of hero, a Nazi hunter seeking to avenge his beloved little sister.
It is curious that little to nothing suggests that this Hannibal enjoys the taste of human flesh. Granted, as it is his origin story, we can forgive his lack of calculated genius where he is able to escape whatever traps laid for him. However, Hannibal Rising is surprisingly unoriginal in its take on our character. Having him hunt down people gives him an honorable motive, which makes one wonder whether Harris wanted us to see him as less methodical murderer and more wounded soul.
To my mind, having him kill others to avenge his family's killing is almost hackneyed, surprisingly unoriginal and a terrible letdown for someone so charmingly and delightfully wicked. It does not help that none of the previous Hannibal Lecter films hinted at his haunted past. It also does not help that Hannibal Rising does not suggest Lecter would turn out to dine on people. It actually suggests he might turn out to be a good man. As such, if anyone saw Hannibal Rising first then moved on to either Red Dragon/Manhunter or The Silence of the Lambs, he or she might be confused.
He at first was angry that Grutas suggested to Lecter that he ate and enjoyed his own sister's flesh, but now he likes the taste of it?
Hannibal Rising is also littered with some ghastly performances. Rhys Ifans devoured the scenery to the extent you thought he did literally eat the child actors in the film. It is watchable only in a hilarious kind of watching. It is so over-the-top it almost hypnotizes you, amazed that the bad accent and crazed manner could be considered remotely rational. Kevin McKidd, who plays another Lithuanian cannibal, could not handle the accent any better, though to be fair he did make a decent stab at playing a slightly more sympathetic figure.
One is puzzled about Gong Li, a good actress given little to do. As for the late Ulliel, he did on occasion slip into camp, but I think that was more the script than him. He made a surprisingly charming figure who sought out honorable revenge. Pity that he seemed to be playing in a different movie, one about Nazi hunters than murderous cannibals.
So much about Hannibal Rising is wildly wrong that one feels for the lost opportunity. Unoriginal origin story, mostly bad acting, lousy situations, with little to suggest we are getting the birth of evil. The film plays more like bad fanfiction than it does the genesis of this now-iconic character. Hannibal Lecter had a better origin long after he became an adult, and Hannibal Rising is a poor beginning to this massive figure.