Film Review – Life of Pi
When it comes to Ang Lee, I tend to zig when most people zag. I’m in the minority that was not enchanted by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also in the minority who enjoyed Hulk. Probably the only instance where I have found myself aligned with popular opinion was on Brokeback Mountain. Whether I have enjoyed his films or not, I have a strong respect for him as a director. And yet his latest film, Life of Pi, somehow almost completely missed my radar. Not only had I never heard of the book—which is very well regarded, I’ve learned—but I only saw the trailer for the film right before I went to see it. Not anticipating this film turned out to be quite a mistake.
The story is told mostly through flashbacks, as the adventures of the protagonist, Pi (Suraj Sharma), are told to a writer (Rafe Spall). We watch as Pi fights to survive while on a life raft with a tiger in the middle of the ocean, after the ocean liner carrying his family and their zoo sinks. In a year of crazy plots (see Robot & Frank or The Sessions as examples), this one ranks pretty high up there. Despite working with such a wild concept, Ang Lee is able to construct an engaging story that remains grounded in reality (though it does bend the limits). It is even more amazing to think that Lee was bold enough to gamble on putting the success of the movie on the back of newcomer Sharma. Coming out of seemingly nowhere, Sharma is a force of nature (pardon the joke) for the film, and certainly deserves to be in the discussion for the best acting performances of this year.
As beautifully shot as Brokeback Mountain was, at its core it was story-driven film, while Life of Pi necessarily raises the visuals to the next level. That isn’t to say it isn’t story-driven as well, but it almost feels like a comic book (a la Sin City or 300). There are a few times when it feels like visuals may dictate the storytelling, but overall, the elements join together to create a powerful combination. The few points when the visuals take over stand out because they are when the film drags a little bit in the pacing, which seems to be one of the dangers of visual-driven storytelling.
To give further credence to how beautifully shot the movie is: it isn’t often that I say this, but this is one of the few films for which I think there is an advantage to seeing it in 3D. This isn’t your standard conversion of a regular movie into 3D; it was filmed with structure designed around 3D, in the same vein as Wim Wenders’s Pina or the narrative world of Laika’s Coraline. Instead of the traditional gimmicky pop-out shots or slight addition of depth of field, you can see that Lee put a lot of time and care into his use of the full film frame, and nothing was left to waste. Similarly, for a film that has an extensive amount of CGI work, it is done extremely subtlety, in such a manner that it enhances the storytelling instead of displacing it.
One of the potential conflicts with the film’s reception could be over the religious undertones that exist in the story. For me, it feels more like a story about faith, rather than a discussion of any specific religious dharma, but for folks that prefer their films religion-free, this could be a problem. In fact, I feel like this provides one of the most digestible explanations for religion’s (and I mean religion in a general sense) place in our society. I was a little concerned going into the film about there being more direct overtones about religion—with the “ark”-type vibe the trailer alluded to—but that did not end up being the case.
One can see why Lee would be interested in the project. Besides the amazing visuals that play well to his strengths, there is an inspirational and unique tale being woven. The absurdity of the premise makes it feel like it might end up as some superficial, fantastical tale. But as the layers are pulled back with each flashback, the film provides more depth, until the viewer (along with Rafe Spall) reaches a pleasant treat at the end of this harrowing adventure. It is not just a great story; it is a clever life lesson.
When I look back on 2012, Life of Pi will certainly rank amongst the most pleasant surprises. It isn’t so much that the story is the most creative, but that this is the kind of film that reminds me about the magic of cinema. As successful as the book was, this is a story that was made to be a film. If there were any doubts in my mind about Ang Lee, he has certainly won me over now, and I would love to see him get a directorial nomination—there might be no better visual storyteller working in film today.
Final Grade: A-