Great, great movie. I enjoyed it more than Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon (although to be fair, I've seen SotL about a dozen times, and it just doesn't do anything for me). I was surprised to see that Ridley Scott directed this movie and that Julianne Moore played Clarice this time. She does a good job portraying the new Clarice, who after ten years has lost her innocent demeanor and is more courageous, serious, and just appears less threatened. When she says in the beginning, "I wasn't speaking to you. You'll know when I'm speaking to you because I'll look at you," the persona is very different than Jodie Foster's character, who was in training, meek, and had to put up with people coming on to her and she couldn't talk back to them. Here, she's grown up, but she's still very attractive and persistent, which Moore plays very well. Anthony Hopkins is still a very strong character as well.
The biggest shift in this story is the focus. Rather than in SotL and Red Dragon where the main character uses Lector as a source of information for capturing somebody else, here Lecter is the person they're trying to capture. I think this works better because he's a more terrifying antagonist than Buffalo Bill or the Tooth Fairy. Buffalo Bill is just a psychotic who wants to make a dress out of flesh, and the Tooth Fairy just has a back tattoo and has psycho-sexual issues with his body and with his grandmother. Lecter is a much more threatening character because he is sane. He is always in control but he's sporadic in whom he kills. Buffalo Bill chose to kill white women and the Tooth Fairy chose to kill families. Lecter makes his own selection, but his victims are chosen for their avarice, so everyone is potentially a target. All the characters Lecter kills can be traced to their avarice or their rudeness. But in SotL and Red Dragon, Lecter isn't properly the antagonist. In Hannibal, he starts out as being the bad guy, but slowly he becomes the central character and you don't want him to get caught. It seems that the only person for whom he doesn't have the utmost contempt is Clarice, whom he praises for her selflessness and sense of moral duty. At this point, though, we understand that Lecter is the same: in fact, he kills those who have wounded Clarice and hindered her progress.
One can imagine each of the main characters as a part of the brain. Clarice is the part of the brain that follows a strict moral law, who doesn't lash out when put in a corner, who always obeys the rules, and tries to bring immoral people to justice. Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) is the part of the brain that wants to hurt back those who have done harm to the subject, who want to revel in dealing back equal or greater pain that have been done to them. Justice Department official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) is the part of the mind that is focused on sex and treats people as objects for lust. Lecter is the part of the mind that simply wants those who do wrong to simply not exist anymore. In a sense, he is not so different from Mason Verger's character, but he never gets pleasure out of killing. He would phrase his work as: revealing in them their greatest potential, that is, as food. He knows that some people are good for nothing, so they might as well only be used for food. He has no qualms about killing, but he does follow a moral code. Both he and Clarice never act out of avarice, out of greed, or for self-gain. This is almost directly implied when he gives a lecture in Florence about Medieval and Renaissance conceptions of avarice, particularly in Dante. The Italian investigator is the first murder by Lecter, but the investigator allowed himself to be caught by his own greed for the reward of capturing Lecter; had he simply let the FBI know of his location in Florence, he would have saved himself. The same is true for the gypsy boy who Lecter kills and the Krendler character. In this way, Lecter is not really an antagonist at all, and we come to understand that he doesn't kill out of caprice, but to set things right in the world.
Some people might criticize the romantic undertones of the movie, but I thought they were quite apt. After all, in SotL he brushes his hand against hers and makes all kinds of other insinuations. Now, a comparison to SotL is inevitable, and that's what many critics say bring this movie down: it doesn't live up to SotL. But what are we comparing here? They're completely different stories. This movie builds on the knowledge from the first movie and gives insight into Lecter, who until now has really just been a barbaric killer. In SotL, there's the creepiness and scariness factor, but he's trying to escape from prison and acting under instinct to survive. There's not that much depth to his character there. Now, the conversations with Clarice are more memorable, and Ridley Scott can't get over this, as apparent in his frequent use of tape recordings from the first movie. There frankly is less psychological depth in this movie in the relationship with Clarice and Lecter, who in SotL he sort of tried to get into her head. In Hannibal, though, you have to do your own psychological investigation on the characters. There is depth in the relationship between Starling and Lecter, which doesn't find fruition in a true expression of love, but there is still a deep connection (maybe not even romantic, but on a more fundamental connection). SotL was a darker movie, it had a darker vibe, but this movie isn't really trying to be as dark because when it comes down to it, Lecter is not a sadistic or scary character. He saves Starling more than once and cuts off his own hand for her. He is, effectively, the protagonist. This can also be clearly be seen in the final scene when he speaks to the child like a father, or when after the credits roll, you hear Anthony Hopkins's voice says: "Ta-ta. H." One can't help but smile.
I know it sounds like I'm trying to defend this movie, which I kind of am. I think it's underrated and in being compared to SotL, which focuses on something completely different, the movie Hannibal hasn't been given its due. Granted, some special effects are pretty atrocious. Also, the whole Starling vs. the FBI is dry and predictable; there isn't a lot of substance there. One last point to make is the music. The music is spectacular. Hans Zimmer is at the top of his form in this movie. He even writes a beautiful operatic number. The music paints a picture of Lecter as having a real appreciation for and knowledge of fine arts. This makes him terrifying for two reasons: 1. His refined taste and knowledge makes him an efficient and decisive killer. 2. It makes you identify with him and simultaneously terrifies you of your identification of him. Unfortunately, there are now probably more people who know the music Dead Mau5 than J.S. Bach, so maybe the role he plays is becoming increasingly unidentifiable. But I think that making Hannibal a clearly fleshed out character with refined taste makes for a frightening, and yet humble and indeed sympathetic, character. And that's where I think this movie succeeds where SotL does not.