Capsule: ‘Life Of Pi’ joins ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ (1973) and ‘The Little Prince’ (1974) as being an adaptation of a philosophical book that reached for big meanings and it is not a lot more profound. Ang Lee’s film of Yann Martel’s novel ‘Life Of Pi’ is a visual feast, well-acted and with very fine use of 3D, but the story itself does not reach profundity and instead seems flat and a little pretentious. Lee has done as much or more with this story than can possibly be expected, but like ‘What Dreams May Come’ (1998) I personally would prefer to watch it with the sound off.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
[Disclaimer: I will say at the outset of this review that I think of myself as an empiricist. I personally am sceptical of mysticism of all stripes. But when a film starts out by saying that it has a story that will make you believe in God, they have my attention. Philosophers have attempted this feat for centuries. Then the film proceeds then to tell a fictional story. I generally do not find fiction modifies my opinions on metaphysics.]
I am a fan of the first half of Carroll Ballard’s ‘The Black Stallion’ (1979). In that first half, a shipwreck maroons a young boy on a small island with a beautiful Arabian stallion. With poetic photography and not a word of dialog, it shows how the boy wins over the initially cautious stallion and how the two become close friends. In the second half, the boy is rescued and allow the horse to be used as a racehorse, which makes for a disappointing ending. That was the sort of film I was expecting with ‘Life Of Pi’.
I was aware that the novel, a favourite of afternoon book discussion groups, had a long section of a similarly shipwrecked young man, Pi, sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger without becoming the tiger’s emergency food ration. In fact, that turns out to be most of the story. Though there is more build up, that is the story.
The tiger and Pi (the latter played as a young man by Suraj Sharma) survive the sinking of the ship taking them from India to Canada and the two survivors find ways to co-exist. One nice touch is there never is a point that Pi can be sure he has made a friend of the tiger. To the author’s credit the film never becomes a buddy movie. Unfortunately, Lee tries to reach for deep meanings, which may be as bad. The experience adds to seventeen year-old Pi’s philosophical bent that has already made him simultaneously a Hindu, a Christian, and a Moslem, so adding a new system of beliefs to the pile is not much of a stretch for Pi.
Along Pi’s way to rescue, we see the Pacific Ocean and the sky overhead photographed by Claudio Miranda, with a beauty rarely matched in films. But Ang Lee is not one to let natural realism get in the way of an image he wants for the film. Some of this is real ocean well-filmed, but Lee is not shy about using computer graphics wherever it will help to create the feeling he wants, realistic or not. He can give an animal a very human expression because that animal exists only in a computer. The expression is more eloquent for the audience can be but not very realistic since what we really are seeing is a convincing-looking cartoon. Using CGI we get to see a whale, flying fish and what I am told is an entirely digital tiger. We also get a carnivorous island (?) inhabited by meerkats and shaped like a woman. One wonders what is the symbolic meaning of a killer island shaped like a woman?
In addition, Lee frequently uses impossible or at least unexplained lighting. The sea seems to glow with beautiful phosphorescence that nature knows nothing about. Lee also uses 3D to reasonably nice effect, though the most impressive use is in the opening titles in which a lizard run up to the front of the screen. Ang Lee is a director who seems unafraid to direct any style of film as long as he has done nothing like it in the past.
To show Pi at different ages four different actors play him, though they do not really resemble each other. As an adult, Pi is played by now-familiar Indian actor Irrfan Khan. We have seen him in major Western films like ‘The Namesake’, ‘A Mighty Heart’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’. Khan has very characteristic eyes that none of the other actors playing Pi seem to share.
Some viewers will certainly see this as an insightful parable and have a very different experience from mine. Still, if ‘Life Of Pi’ is not the soul-stirring inspiration of faith that the script calls for it to be, it is more than two hours of natural and unnatural wonders. If the movie is not tucked into my soul, at least it is well-lodged into my memory. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
© 2012 Mark R. Leeper