‘Life of Pi’ a sometimes-uplifting visual feast

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Life of Pi posterLife of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by David Magee

USA, 2012

In his lengthy and idiosyncratic career, Ang Lee has been content to not be pinned down. His identity as a director isn’t through using similar actors or sticking to one genre, but in hewing to a set of themes that will appear in a story about two cowboys in love with each other, or a historical martial-arts thriller, or a comic-book movie about a scientist who…well, you don’t want to see what happens when he gets angry. Lee tells stories about how our identities are shaped by bucking the trends and beliefs of the societies in which we live, by challenging tradition. This theme appears in his latest effort, the visually stunning new drama Life of Pi, wherein a teenager goes through a trial by fire and water with a tiger at his side.

Irrfan Khan stars as Piscine Molitor Patel, known as Pi since he was a boy; he begins Life of Pi by telling a writer (Rafe Spall) his strange and singular saga. Pi grew up in Pondicherry, a well-to-do area in India, where his father ran a zoo inside of a botanical garden. Though he grows up an intelligent and independent boy—Pi calls himself a “Catholic Hindu” because of his curiosity about all religions and the very idea of a higher power—Pi is heartbroken to leave India when his father thinks it would be financially beneficial for their family to live in Canada. However, the trip is short-lived when the freighter they travel on through the Pacific Ocean sinks during an explosive thunderstorm, leaving Pi the sole human survivor. He winds up on a lifeboat with a few vital supplies, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an adult Bengal tiger who’s fierce, confused, and hungry.

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The biggest selling point of Life of Pi is, easily, its imagery. Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda work in a truly striking visual palette, offering up beauty in many forms, whether it’s the leafy greens surrounding exhibits in a zoo; a meerkat’s large, friendly eyes; or the starry night sky being reflected in still water. Also, Life of Pi is a rare live-action film that uses 3D to positive effect, not negative. (Yes, it’s possible! Pinky swear.) Though a number of the dialogue scenes in the first third aren’t enhanced by 3D technology that much, once the teenage Pi stumbles onto the top level of the freighter during the storm that sends it to the depths of the ocean, the 3D begins to unravel its fully immersive effects in an intense and bravura sequence. Pi’s escape from the sinking ship is, without question, the film’s highlight. That said, Lee’s directorial flourishes sometimes come at the film’s aesthetic expense; at two key moments while Pi is stranded on the lifeboat, the film’s aspect ratio deliberately shifts, which only serves as a distraction.

It is, perhaps, courting danger to place a young, untested actor at the center of a movie where he’ll be required to interact with no other humans for over an hour. But Suraj Sharma, in his debut, is a confident, mostly assured performer. (A couple of times, when he’s called on to be overly histrionic, he falters.) Sharma and the film excel most in the second act, as Pi tries to keep a grip on his sanity and focus on surviving while not becoming the tiger’s next meal. (He’s able to humanize the tiger just a bit thanks to its name: Richard Parker.) By employing the framing device of having the adult Pi tell his life story, though, Life of Pi struggles somewhat in its opening and closing. The concept of an older version of this teenager letting the story unfurl to a rapt audience is fine; it’s how he sets up the story as a way to convince the writer of God’s existence that feels muddled and half-formed.

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Frankly, the spiritual element of the film, always present but too opaque, is a bit baffling. Pi is adrift at sea for months and infrequently pleads with his maker for deliverance; however, it’s not always certain what his faith means to him as a teenager. We know how Pi, the adult, treats his spirituality mostly because he explains it in no small detail. Khan, who was excellent on the third season of HBO’s In Treatment, is fine as the older Pi, but the constant jumps back and forth in time in the first 30 minutes, from his childhood to him talking to the writer, are jarring and unnecessary. Until the second act, we’re not able to settle into the story; it’s as if Lee and screenwriter David Magee don’t trust us to latch onto the ideas represented in the source text.

That aside, Life of Pi is a singular experience, sincere and thrilling despite its point being too obscure. Ang Lee’s ambitions as a filmmaker haven’t flagged with age; that this movie’s aims exceed its grasp a few times too many is offset by a soulful lead performance and a bevy of jaw-dropping images. Life of Pi bucks the trend present in too many movies these days, that you can wait to watch them on Netflix as opposed to seeing them on the big screen. Though Life of Pi isn’t completely consistent, it’s filled with moments of pure visual cinema, best viewed on the biggest screen possible so you can drink in the vision Lee and his crew worked so hard to present.

— Josh Spiegel

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