Don’t bite the Hannibal that feeds

The prequel ‘Hannibal Rises’ has lost its flavor with the absence of Anthony Hopkins

by Sara Nicole Miller

Even the most ghastly of serial killers were children once. However, this obvious deduction fails to explain how and why, somewhere along the way, young men morph into human monsters.

Dr. Hannibal Lector surely needed an absolutely rubbish childhood to be where he is today. Without it, there would be no subliminal lamb philosophizing with Clarice Starling, no teeth-baring leather face and Ray Liotta would’ve been spared from eating his own brain.

“Hannibal Rising”
DIRECTED BY: Peter Webber
STARRING: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Dominic West
SHOWING AT: Area theaters

But the universe always has other plans. In the new prequel film “Hannibal Rising” Lector fans can witness the young Hannibal’s tragic transformation into the monstrous anomaly of deviant popular psychology; the Hannibal that we know and love.

The film begins as World War II air raids force Hannibal’s family out of their medieval castle home in mountainous Lithuania. They flee to a rustic cabin hideout, and his parents subsequently die in the crossfire of a nearby ambush, leaving the 8-year-old Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and his little sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) to fend for themselves.

The cabin is then raided by a pack of local Nazi sympathizers. The renegade group soon makes a grisly nutritional decision in the face of starvation; and little Mischa soon becomes Little Debbie. For a boy whose star-crossed fate isn’t spelled out enough in his own first name, Hannibal’s destiny, along with his future culinary preferences, now becomes painfully obvious.

Fast forward eight years: Hannibal is a strapping teenager (Gaspard Ulliel) living in his childhood castle; although it has now been converted into a Soviet orphanage. Haunted by cheesy, classical Hollywood flashbacks of his sister’s demise, he flees the orphanage and travels to France in search of an uncle.

The uncle, as it turns out, has died, but his young Japanese widow, aunt Murasaki (Gong Li) takes him into her chateau. Under her codependent, oddly erotic guidance, Hannibal’s elegant tastes – in classical music, sketch portraiture and human anatomy – begin to emerge as he cultivates his talents in samurai weaponry and attains a work scholarship at a medical school.

The promising young professional that he is, Hannibal has a lot of free time on his hands – enough to trek across the Iron Curtain, systematically hunt down, maim and skewer on the barbeque the men responsible for boiling his sister.

Revenge killings can be sweet, but even sweeter are the random, senseless slices and dices that we’ve come to expect from serial killers – something that “Hannibal Rising” sorely lacks. Yes, the young Hannibal is no less a killing machine than the Hopkins variety. But unlike the old Hannibal, who butchers innocent people on a whim, the young Hannibal kills bad men out of vengeance, and the sadistic cannibalism becomes a mere afterthought.

The audience finds itself spoon-fed a gothic tale of a man with a twisted sense of vigilante justice who has somehow come to lump human carnage, animal butchery and the food pyramid into one grisly category.

If you’re looking for head-on-a-platter thrills and bare-bones slasher action, then “Hannibal Rising” will suit you just fine. Just don’t expect Ulliel’s contortionist sneer to measure up to Hopkins’ diabolical genius. You’ll leave the theater wondering if the two Hannibals have ever even met.

In the three-course feast that makes up Lector’s film library of gore lore, “Hannibal Rising” amounts to little more than an under-salted bouche. Lose the action film blueprint, stuff Anthony Hopkins into a kid suit, and then maybe the Lector trilogy will have some semblance of continuity.