Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a doubled-edged argument for the transcendent capabilities of film. In its central section uses the latest technological achievements to transform the fantastical, fable-like central tale of Yann Martel's award-winning novel into some of the most innovative and wondrous images to flicker across the big screen this year. And in its framing story, one it returns to periodically as if needing to keep the audience from getting too caught up in the gorgeous abstraction of its narrative at sea, it provides a reminder of why we should trust more in those images, as it ploddingly trots out its source material's heavy-handed and unnecessary delineation of its own themes.
Those themes include faith and what fuels it. And in case anyone watching is in danger of not picking that up, Rafe Spall, in the role of a fictionalized version of Martel coming to interview the title character (played by Irrfan Khan as an adult) at his home in Canada, announces that he's been promised a story that will make him believe in God. The nature of that God is a general one — Martel, and David Magee, who wrote the screenplay, are more interested in the idea of religion rather than one in particular. As a young boy, played by Ayush Tandon, Pi Patel becomes enchanted by Hinduism, then Christianity, then Islam, practicing them all with no sense that they need clash. As a grown man sharing his extraordinary tale of survival with a stranger who has come his way by chance, Pi remains a figure of strong but vague spirituality, though the film's ultimate assessment of why people choose to believe in a higher power seems unlikely to please the devout.
Life of Pi is also, more compellingly, about storytelling: the way we choose to present and frame the events that happen to us. Long before he's stranded at sea with a tiger for company, Pi's life is one that's filled with strands of magical realism. Born in Pondicherry in French India, he's named after a swimming pool in Paris that his uncle once visited. Its clear water is presented by the film as looking like air until swimmers ripple its surface as they dart across the screen. He and his brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar) spend their soft-focus childhood growing up on a zoo run by their reason-loving father (Adil Hussain) and their softer, more nurturing mother (Tabu). The animal inhabitants are showcased in a delightful opening credits sequence -- all except the newest arrival, a Bengal tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker.
The tragedy that strands a teenage Pi (played by perfectly adequate first-timer Suraj Sharma) in a lifeboat with Richard Parker in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a terrifyingly realized storm that takes down the freighter transporting the Patel family and their menagerie to a new life in Canada. Water, whether in the form of a remembered pool or an angry sea swamping the deck of a ship, is the element that buoys the film along. Lee uses it as the medium for some unparalleled instances of 3D, first in how our protagonist is thrown onto his tiny boat with a few panicked animals, riding giant waves that bring the larger vessel down to a resting place of haunting and tragic beauty.
Later, as Pi and his dangerous companion struggle to reach some kind of accord that will allow for their mutual coexistence on a very limited space, the ocean stretches endlessly around them as a force of mystical capriciousness — sometimes it's a mirror-still reflection of the sky, another time it offers up sustenance via a school of flying fish or takes it away in a dreamily alarming brush with a whale. The sea dwarfs the odd pair of travelers, the camera sometimes swinging out above the lifeboat to show it as a small blip in a vast body of water that resembles the cosmos.
Pi's continued existence and trials may be thanks to the whims of the universe &mash; "I give myself to you!" he yells to whatever deity might be listening, "I am your vessel! Whatever comes, I want to know!" — but it's his relationship Richard Parker that provides the human side to this existential crisis. A seamless blend of real tiger and CGI, Richard Parker is a fully believable creation, and while Pi searches him for some sign of a soul, of some connection between living things, Life of Pi is careful not to anthropomorphize him. He's a formidable beast, a potential killer, and the film's best representation of its central question of whether there's some design to existence or it's just a collection of chaotic and sometimes awful events.
Unfortunately, Life of Pi also prods at this question during periodic returns to the present day with the grown Pi and Martel, and the scenes create the sensation of an author leaning over your shoulder as you read to point out all of the symbolism he doesn't want you to miss.
The story of Pi and Richard Parker already has the clean simplicity of a myth and really doesn't require significant elaboration, but following in the footsteps of the source material, the film provides elaboration anyway, and that demonstrates a condescension to the audience that dulls the spectacle it punctuates.
The past and the present day become an example of not just the contrast between the classic poles of showing and telling but of the fundamentally cinematic and the not. Pi's reliability as a narrator is one of the key aspects of the story, but the heightened sensibility of his account is contrasted not with some underlying sense of another reality but of a framing story that's only there as a vehicle for authorial exposition. Lee's movie is a grand gesture of filmmaking pushed to its furthest technical edges, but hemmed in and confined by its fidelity to words on a page.
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