If Hollywood is to be believed (and usually it's not) all good movie monsters have a beginning so it only makes sense from a franchise perspective if not an artistic one that the origin of Hannibal Lecter would one day be made into a film. Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising is a reasonably well written and well made film that takes a lot of the mystery and therefore a lot of the eeriness out of the character, therefore reducing him to little more than a classier Freddy Kruger.
The film begins in 1940s Lithuania where a young Hannibal Lecter (Aaran Thomas) and his sister Mischa (Helena-Lia Tachovska) live a very comfortable life. When the Second World War wreaks havoc on the area they call home, the two kids, along with their parents (Richard Leaf and Ingeborga Dapkunaite), have to leave their castle and hide out in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Soon enough, the parents are killed off, the victims of war, and Hannibal and Mischa are left to take care of themselves. To make matters worse, some local thugs take over the cabin where the two kids are hanging out. Soon they run out of food, and Mischa winds up on the menu.
Fast forward a few years and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel - who looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins and who is therefore an odd casting choice), now a teenager, lives in the castle that was once his home but which is now under Soviet control and serving as a makeshift orphanage. He escapes from the castle and heads to France, hoping that his late uncle's wife will take him in. She does, and she educates him about the finger things in life. Hannibal grows up, works his way through medical school and slowly but surely plots revenge on the men who ate poor little Mischa many years ago.
First things first - Hannibal Rising looks really good. It's a slick and polished production that has great set design and makes use of some exotic locations to ensure that even when the story is puttering around, at least the visuals are cool. Sadly, there's so much of the aforementioned puttering around that it's hard to care. The film succeeds only in sucking all of the life out of what was once a really interesting movie villain. The blame for this falls not on the cast so much or even on the director but primarily on the script and even then you can see where some interesting ideas are trying to escape. Sadly, it just doesn't click. It all feels forced, like a cash in on the name recognition that Anthony Hopkins brought to the roll though without his considerable screen presence or charisma. The end result is a 'dumbed down' origin story that feels rushed, poorly thought out, and completely half assed. Hannibal is turned into a sympathetic character here, and he has the evil sucked right out of him.
Ulliel isn't given much to work with here. He's not horrible in the part despite the lack of resemblance but all he's really required to do here is look intense or pissed off. Hopkins turned the character into an extension of himself to a certain degree and he gave Lecter personality - none of that personality carries over to this picture. The script is just flat and as such, the performances suffer even if on a technical level no one single actor or actress stands out as bad. The only interesting part of the story is how we are shown parallels between Lecter and Agent Starling, though these are not particularly subtle and therefore, like the rest of the film, come off as forced.
Ultimately, the film looks good. There are some interesting ideas here and the pacing is fine - but the story just doesn't work and when that's the case and you've got a few decent movies behind you that you're trying to live up to, it's quite simply a recipe for little more than an extremely mediocre cash in on a successful franchise.
Hannibal Rising hits DVD in a very nice 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film in its proper aspect ratio. Though this isn't the most colorful film ever made (in fact it's fairly dark), the transfer handles the hues well. Black levels stay pretty solid and while there are some scenes that exhibit some really minor compression artifacts, print damage is never an issue and edge enhancement is held in check. There's a bit of aliasing and a couple of scenes are a little bit soft but aside from those brief occurrences the picture is pretty detailed with good sharpness and little to complain about.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on the disc isn't as aggressive as you might expect it to be but the more subdued mix works well within the context of the movie so that's hardly a complaint. Dialogue is always clean and clear and there are no problems at all with hiss or distortion. Bass levels are fine and everything is properly balanced. Rears are used effectively during a few key scenes in the film to build tension and add some atmosphere
If you dug the movie and want to learn more about it, then be sure to give the audio commentary a shot, courtesy of director Peter Webber and producer Martha De Laurentiis. The track moves at a good pace and while it would have been nice to have them in the same room to maybe get some sort of camaraderie going between them, they do manage to get a lot of good information out about the film. They talk about adopting Harris' novel for the big screen, how this film fits in alongside the other Hannibal Lecter movies and about casting, location shooting and effects work. It's a pretty detailed talk that also points out what was reinserted back into the movie for the unrated version that appears on this DVD as opposed to the theatrical cut of the movie.
Five deleted scenes are presented, each less than a minute in length, with optional commentary from the director. They were pretty much trimmed for pacing reasons, none of them add much to the story. The titles explain what you need to know about them - Boiling The Photo Album, Hannibal Gets Off The Truck, Prison Sequence, Hannibal At The Lock Keeper and Lady M And A Photo of Hannibal. It's nice to see them here for those who care, but they're pretty disposable.
Up next is the sixteen minutes Hannibal Lecter: The Origin Of Evil featurette. It's not particularly lengthy but it does a nice job of mixing up some decent cast and crew interviews with pertinent clips from the movie as well as some behind the scenes footage. We learn what Thomas Harris did with various ideas and how Webber brought his own personal touch to the picture. It's a reasonably interesting piece that's worthwhile for fans of the film. A second, seven minute featurette entitled Allan Starski: Designing For Elegance is more or less a discussion with the film's production designer who talks about what he was going for with the look he created for the film and how he set about making it happen.
Rounding out the extra features are two promo spots for Hannibal Rising, trailers for a few other, unrelated DVDs, animated menus and chapter stops.
While you can't dispute the fact that the DVD itself is very well put together and that the extras are substantial and actually fairly interesting, Hannibal Rising is still a very mediocre film. Fans of the character will want to check it out and the movie isn't a complete failure but at this point the franchise should probably just stop. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.