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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Adapted from the novel of the same name, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a film not easily described. It acts as a survivalist tale on its surface while also wrapped up in messaging that conveys a very spiritualist tone. The film in 75% of its running time evokes a sense of wonder that I haven’t seen in a film in quite a number of years, the remaining 25% poses intriguing questions that I’m not quite sure the film itself provides a strong basis for. It’s a film where its simplest moments far exceed any grandiosity that is attempted in the script’s lesser stretches, yet throughout, it remains a visual marvel.

Framed by a story of an author (Rafe Spall) interviewing a subject named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), the film introduces audiences to a younger version of the protagonist living in India, with the birth name Piscene. Due to the fact that his name is a constant source of amusement for classmates as to its similarity to the word “pissing”, Piscene begins to go by “Pi”, and wins over his classmates with his intimate knowledge of the number Pi which he takes a sort-of namesake. We’re then delved into Pi’s family life, where Pi’s father (Adil Hussein) and mother (Tabu) run a local zoo and botanical garden, and we learn of Pi’s attraction to religion and the ideal of becoming “closer to God”. Despite his father’s chastisement, Pi begins to study not only Hinduism, but also Catholicism and Islam through various interactions and exposure during this formative time in his life. This appeal through spirituality gives Pi the belief that all animals, even the most dangerous ones, like a Bengal Tiger at his father’s zoo named Richard Parker, have souls. This is a belief his father quickly tries to dissuade. Due to a lack of support in the city in which their zoo is located, his family is forced to move to Canada via a freighter vessel, and takes the Zoo animals with them in order to sell them to North American preserves. Due to stormy seas, the ship wrecks and a now teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself left on a life raft with four of the animals (a orangutan, hyena, zebra, and Richard Parker) left alive.

The majority of the rest of the film covers Pi’s attempts to survive with this crew of animals as he crosses the Pacific. It is here where the film is at its most successful. Lee and DP Claudio Miranda frame some of the most beautiful shots seen in a film this year, and the effects used to bring Richard Parker to life are quite stunning. Typically, I find that I prefer practical effects whenever possible, but when CGI is done this well, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference between shots of a real tiger and when the computer imaging takes over. One of the scenes that stuck with me the strongest was a beautiful sequence of Pi staring into the nighttime ocean surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of glowing jellyfish, illuminating Pi and everything surrounding him in a gorgeous green glow.

During the course of this act, there is limited voice-over, and non-verbal cues indicate the growing “friendship” between Pi and the Tiger. In places, the film takes on some of the stronger aspects of movies like 127 Hours, where a protagonist has to secure his self-reliance in order to survive. In addition, it is in this section of the film where the theme of faith becomes strongest. Pi’s belief in a higher power is what consistently grants his will to maintain survival against all odds. One fellow critic compared Pi’s trials to that of Job from the Bible, a fitting comparison as Pi has an unwavering devotion to God despite the numerous set-backs he incurs, stretching as far back to his family’s reasoning for being on the ship in the first place.

The final segment of the film ties back into the main framing piece, and offers a re-interpretation of some of the events that transpired. While well acted, this felt incredibly extraneous in how it is presented. It felt like it was basically taken verbatim from the book’s source passages, and frankly doesn’t work well in a visual medium. It was a bit of a let down from the enthralling act that preceded, and stutters the film just a bit. It is also not helped that this re-interpretation is spelled out with highlighter-like precision just to make sure the audience understood. It was a rare moment of a Lee film talking down to an audience, which also left me with a sour taste in my mouth on first viewing.

It must be noted that Sharma is terrific in the title role, it takes a tremendous synthesis of actor and role for any player to take on a script that would enable him to the be main moving cog of the film’s momentum, but Sharma, an actor of no previous professional experience, absolutely nails the part. Khann, as the older Pi, portrays a wearier version of the part quite well, and a lesser actor might have stumbled having been given such an unwieldy portion to work with. His subtle performance helps stave off the “prequel problem” that plagues the film in part, as we know Pi lives to tell his tale its only a matter of how “A connects to B” not whether he actually survives or not. At no point did I fear for his fate, and in ways that unfairly kills much of the narrative tension.

Yet, I still left the theater satisfied, as the good mostly outweighs any possible detraction I may have had with the film. Life of Pi is lovely to gaze upon, and most likely will come away as the best looking film viewers will see this year. I do also recommend seeing the film in 3D, while it still doesn’t awe in the way Avatar’s visuals did in 2009, I would argue this is the best use of 3D technology since, through an enhancement of the effects, the landscapes, and perhaps a tiger scene or two.

Despite a rather large misstep in the final third, Ang Lee continues to prove why he is still one of the most interesting film-makers working today.
 I give it 3 out of 4 stars (or a B+ if you prefer).
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