In one of the riskier studio gambles of the year, 20th Century Fox is hoping you'll want to spend your Thanksgiving movie time this year contemplating the nature of god. And maybe they're on to something. It could just be that after enough dry turkey and bickering, some meditative soul-searching will be a welcome respite. Fox wagered $100 million that that's the case, anyway, and thus we have the big, gushing, twinkling adaptation of Life of Pi, the bestselling 2001 novel by Yann Martel that got everyone pretty dreamy for a while. The movie will likely get some people dreamy too, though its core philosophical insights feel a tad undercooked.
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As directed by Ang Lee, the film is more of a spectacle than spiritual inquest anyway. As he proved in his oddly contemplative 2003 dud Hulk, Lee is capable of manipulating the cold glimmer and whir of computer animation into something lovely and pensive. Life of Pi is stuffed, perhaps overly, with computer generated images — of which I am generally not fond — and they are somehow unintrusively lovely works of art; the lushness of the images gives the film a vividness, a kind of central animating spirit, that carries it through what might otherwise be some pretty still and tedious waters. Credit then to Lee and his computer wizard collaborators for turning a largely synthetic and digital film, one in 3D no less, into something that seems, for the most part, textured and organic. I wish, though, that everything below the surface of the picture was as richly realized.
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Life of Pi tells the story of a boy who's given himself the nickname Pi and who is a curious and voracious practitioner of religious faith. Growing up in a verdant and stylized version of Pondicherry, that colorfully colonial enclave of French India, young Pi is raised Hindu and is observant, but also is in awe of the life of Christ and becomes a practicing Muslim. As the adult Pi tells us in narration, these were simply different outlets to god, alternate channels that basically brought him to the same general, touchy-feely deity. This is all presented as darling and optimistic and wise, and I suppose in some ways it is. Still, there's something casually obtuse about this fantasy of egalitarian religious harmony; I suppose it's an intentionally dreamy ideal, but it's still a little too saccharine for its own good. Anyway, Pi isn't into the dogma, instead he seems attracted to faith as an act of the soul, a kind of self-propulsion that guides one through life. That guiding principle is tested when Pi's father decides to move the family to Canada and sell the animals from the family zoo to start a new life. Pi's mother and older brother don't seem all that fussed about leaving this edenic place, but Pi is crushed. Partly because he's a teenager now and has a sweetheart, but mostly because he feels a deep connection to the animals. He talks to them like people, and despite his father's efforts to prove otherwise, he believes that there is something of a human-like soul in each creature. But, being a teenager, he's powerless to stop the family's migration, and so the animals are crated up and put in the belly of a Japanese ship while the family crams into one small cabin to make the long Pacific voyage.
Then things, as things do, go awry. In a scary and thrilling scene, a powerful storm sinks Pi's boat and nearly all of its passengers, including Pi's family, leaving the boy stranded on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a frightened orangutan, a hungry hyena, and, he learns a bit later, the zoo's proud and fearsome Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. (Like much in this story, there's a cutesy anecdote behind the tiger's very human name.) Three of the four animals are quickly done away with, and the movie sets into its long stretch of boy and tiger surviving because of and despite one another. Warily at first but eventually, after much thrashing and roaring from Richard Parker and several failed training attempts by Pi, with a kind of appreciative understanding. This is a bildungsroman about a boy learning the hard truths of the world, its brutalities and its beauties, and coming out the other side of an adventure with a sturdier, if more modest, conviction in a higher power. You know, the divine. Some kind of grand nondenominational supreme being that is neither benevolent nor wrathful but simply watchful. Really this god is a tool for centering one's life, a compass, a polestar. I can get down with that, I guess, it's a pretty nebulous, and toothless, concept, but the film treats it like some grand epiphany. It's not, but that a big-budget studio movie takes aim at such theological/philosophical windmills at all is impressive, and appreciated.
Ultimately, though, this ia a film about spectacular images: Phosphorescent nighttime seas glow with an unearthly, but altogether Earthly, wonder. A school of flying fish whips through the air like locusts. Orange sunset skies burn majestically behind the crisply white lifeboat. It's all very lovely and, to some surprise, very tactfully done. Little is too garish or overwrought, not even the huge humpback whale that pirouettes out of the water and comes crashing down into those glowing seas. That's a big moment, but by that point Lee and the screenwriter David Magee have already convinced us of the ocean's capacity for big things, so the moment seems fantastic, yes, but credible. These images are all glamorous tweaks and enhancements of things we've seen on miraculous HD nature documentaries like Planet Earth. Those are the photographs, these are the paintings, and they're quite something to behold. The film only loses its way with the imagery in the film's muddled and overwrought final act, which has Pi visiting a mysterious island that it is not the idyll it initially seems to be, an experience that convinces Pi of some grand truth that we're never quite well-enough clued in on. This series of scenes is a bit too embellished, both visually and thematically, and it sullies what is up to that point a respectably more subtle and understated movie than it easily could have been.
Adding to that sense of understatement, Lee cast his movie with no huge names, the biggest star perhaps being the indispensable Irrfan Khan as the grownup Pi. Khan has such an appealing quality of weary wisdom about him that he almost sold me on the clunky religious certitudes declared at the end of the film (his story, perhaps allegorical, is supposed to be a proof of god). As the teenage Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma is cute and spirited, humming with the determination of a kid wanting to do a job well. Oh and Richard Parker, our second lead, is played ably by a mix of computers and actual tigers. I appreciated that he wasn't anthropomorphized in any way; he remains fully a tiger from start to finish. There's a seriousness, a soberness, to the relationship between Pi and Richard Paker that in unexpected in what is surely meant to be a family film, and I suspect that was Lee's doing. Despite the swooniness of some of his big, sweeping films, from Brokeback Mountain to Sense & Sensibility, Lee remains a pragmatist at heart. There is certainly room for sentiment, but it has to be used economically.
All told, Life of Pi is a fine little film. Well, I suppose with all those special effects and deep ponderings of the heart and soul it's a bit bigger than little, but this is still niche, almost artsy territory we're covering here. I'm not sure this will be a big Thanksgiving hit, but it's a movie that satisfies a need for spectacle while also trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to grab at some intangibles. That's a rare find these days, and in some ways I'd urge you to see the film if only to encourage more studio fare like this in the future. Think of it is an act of faith; we can't prove that there's a spirit of introspection and creative daring in the studio system just waiting to be tapped into, but we believe it's there all the same.