Life of Pi proves stunning, heavy-handed

PI PATEL (SURAJ SHARMA) AND THE TIGER FEND for their lives in a small lifeboat.

For years, January has been known as the dry month for Hollywood. Due to awards season, most of the best films are released at the tail end of every year; 2012 was no different. The year went out with a bang with such great movies as Skyfall, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables, and Django Unchained. However, looking forward to the next few weeks yields an expected drought of quality films. With the Golden Globes, Producers Guild Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards all done and over with, Hollywood is gearing up for the Academy Awards and essentially putting out B-movies until then. So when it came to planning this review, I decided to go back and check out one of the films that gathered many awards nominations while simultaneously slipping under my radar: Life of Pi. Knowing nothing about the book it was based on, or even much about the premise, I dove in only to be pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy fascinated with religions and the animals in his family’s zoo. After being shocked out of his spiritual reverie by his more logical father, Pi experiences the adventure of a lifetime when he is shipwrecked in middle of the Pacific on his way to Canada. With nothing but a small lifeboat and a limited amount of supplies, Pi struggles to survive alongside a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker from his family’s zoo, another survivor who stowed away on the lifeboat unbeknownst to Pi.

In terms of acting, the film is buoyed by the central performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenaged Pi Patel. Essentially all other roles in the film seemed to be too minor to me to be considered central performances. While this might prove a problem for some movies, Sharma proves an adept actor and handles himself well throughout the whole movie. His Pi is simultaneously sensitive, funny, and refreshingly open-minded and aware of the wonders that the world offers. Even at the brink of hopelessness, Sharma brilliantly conveys Pi’s resourcefulness and determination to survive. His interaction with the CGI Bengal tiger is a particular testament to his ability; lesser actors may not have acted so well with something they couldn’t actually see.

Speaking of the CGI tiger, it was definitely some of the best effects work I’ve seen in a film in some time. I even thought the tiger was real until about halfway into the film. What the effects team did with the animals in this movie in general is pretty amazing. Richard Parker’s performance is, in a way, very humanizing; you can’t help but notice the parallels between his experience and that of Pi. All in all, great effects work and a very good performance.

The supporting cast wasn’t glaringly bad, with Irrfan Khan playing an older Pi and Gerard Depardieu playing a writer looking for new story getting some of the most screen time. All of the actors did suitably, and the peripheral nature of their characters was in line with the narrative in a way that doesn’t make one need to see more of them.

The true masterstroke of this film was its direction; Ang Lee manages to knock yet another one out of the park with this one. His previous claim to fame being Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee proves to be just as sensitive when working with themes of religion and spirituality on a more epic canvas than the rather tightly driven tale of repressed love in that film. Lee takes the viewer along on a journey, not just to the Pacific but into the very depths of faith and humanity, and he does so with the same strong artistic flourish that permeated the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain as well as Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Truly, Life of Pi is firing on all cylinders on an artistic level, thanks in no small part to this film’s amazing visuals. Not only are the effects well done, the use of 3D in this film is unlike anything seen since probably Avatar in 2009; the 3D in Life of Pi manages that rare feat of actually immersing you in the world of the film. Life of Pi is a somewhat apt name for this film, because the way Lee uses the 3D, you live it instead of just watching it.

As an adaptation, I can’t really comment on David Magee’s script since I have not ever read the novel that it is based on. A brief glance at a summary of the book makes me think that the script hit all the major beats of the novel, and when combined with Ang Lee’s visual storytelling methods, provided a very compelling narrative for moviegoers. Thematically, Magee’s script seemed to bottle the book’s religious tones effectively. Watching this movie will definitely provide some people with a transcendent, faith-reaffirming experience; however, that will probably not be the norm. While the themes weaved into the story well, I tend to not like films that beat you over the head with their messages. I’d like to think viewers are intelligent enough to pick up on more subtle themes, and I believe they aren’t nearly as effective when force-fed to you. Despite that, the writing proved effective at providing Lee with a structure from which to work his cinema magic.

More than anything, the film is a brilliant technical achievement. Beyond the excellent CGI and immersive use of 3D, the cinematography in the film is downright gorgeous. Along with Skyfall, this is easily the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen over the course of this past year. Some of the shots simply stunned me; the use of reflections on the ocean and the underwater shots were particularly jaw dropping. The score to this film was also very good, providing music that flowed well with the highs and lows of the story.

Life of Pi surprised me more than anything. Visually, I couldn’t have been more stunned by the film. Script-wise, I was drawn in with relative ease, minus some quibbles about heavy handed storytelling. This isn’t a film I would watch multiple times, and I wouldn’t say I fell in love with it, but I can certainly understand the amount of praise and awards that have been heaped on the film; for a book that was long-considered “unfilmable,” Ang Lee has proven, not for the first time, that he is a gifted and daring filmmaker. I will say this: while Life of Pi was good, I do believe it would lose much of its punch when seen on a small screen. This is definitely one to be seen in the theater, preferably while wearing a goofy pair of polarized plastic glasses.