Director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi presents a tough sell for mainstream audiences: the main character is oddly named, the cast is not comprised of instantly-recognizable faces and the bulk of the story strands the viewers in a small boat with a boy and a tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But if people take a chance and put their faith in the Oscar-winning director, they’ll experience a beautifully told story about survival, self-discovery, the triumph of the human spirit and the quest for meaning in life, all wrapped up in a well-paced film in which the gorgeous special effects and responsible use of 3D are actually quite complementary.
Based on the novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi stars Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu and is in theaters now. Hit the jump for my review.
While the marketing for Life of Pi has focused on the exotic aspects of both the look of the film and its amazing story, the movie itself is a much broader experience. Life of Pi opens with an extended credit sequence that serves to introduce a variety of animals seen in the film, as well as establishing the rich, vividly colorful palette that Lee uses throughout the picture. It also achieves the effect of transitioning an audience into a more patient and peaceful state of mind, almost like a brief meditation session. I found this to be very refreshing once I settled into it, because so few films these days allow the audience to just enjoy the moment. I’m pleased to report that Lee allows many such moments throughout.
The framework of Life of Pi is actually a story within a story. Having given up on a previous book idea, an author (Spall) seeks an audience with Pi Patel (Khan), who has a story that will make the writer “believe in God.” Patel begins his tale with an account of how he got his unusual name (which is too good to spoil here). The time spent on Pi’s childhood also reveals the fact that the young boy is enthralled by the religions of the world but can’t quite seem to choose one to follow. While this story in itself is entertaining, it serves a secondary purpose of easing the listeners in to the tone and rhythm of the storyteller, while also gaining their trust. It’s a brilliant sequence that establishes the protagonist as both the central character of action and as a trusted narrator, all at once; this trust comes in to play by the end of the film.
The heart of the story centers on the teenaged Pi (Sharma) and the animals that belong to his family. Pi’s father decides to sell off the animals and move to America, traveling across the Pacific Ocean on a freighter along with his precious cargo. On the ship, Pi’s family runs afoul of an unpleasant Frenchman (Depardieu) who happens to be the cook; but they’re also befriended by a Chinese passenger who makes the voyage more pleasant. The journey quickly goes south when a terrible storm wracks the ship and capsizes it, with only Pi and a few of his family’s animals surviving in a lifeboat. After a brutal sequence of events, only Pi and a huge tiger named Richard Parker remain.
And here is where the audience is trapped for the majority of the picture. I say that in a good way because we are truly tied to the fates of Pi and Richard Parker throughout the film. When things get tense, we experience that tension; when there is a glimmer of hope, we’re hopeful with them. And it’s here that some of the most remarkable technical achievements occur.
Lee is working with the unenviable trifecta of water, animals and a first-time actor in Sharma. The water scenes, which take up a huge portion of the movie from the initial sinking of the freighter (which was incredibly intense and had me wondering how he got those shots), to the journey of the lifeboat and the eventual return to shore, were one of the major stumbling blocks for Lee’s ten-year journey to bring Life of Pi to the screen. Lee reportedly pre-vis’d all of those scenes and even had the studio build an enormous water tank to get some of these never-before-seen shots. But when Lee brought the idea of adding the element of 3D (and $25 million to the price tag), 20th Century Fox made a bold move and supported the director.
The marketing is selling Life of Pi as “the next Avatar,” and that’s a gross bit of misinformation on a number of levels. Life of Pi is layered in its storytelling where Avatar is straightforward. Life of Pi is a tense story of struggling for survival and meaning while Avatar is an action movie. The only thing they have in common is their rich visual tapestry and brilliant use of 3D. While I believe Lee’s Life of Pi outpaces James Cameron’s Avatar in all of these categories, it’s the aptly handled 3D and technical aspects that came as a surprise.
When we hear a movie is about to be released in 3D, it’s usually an action film that employs gimmicky moments and capitalizes on the uptick in ticket prices. Much like the 3D in Avatar, Life of Pi provides a sense of depth, a surrounding environment that wraps the viewer and includes them in the scene. But Lee takes this added dimension a step further and employs some truly visionary camera work, whether it be the scenes of underwater animal life, blurring the line between water and sky, introducing the audience to a fantastical floating island or ratcheting up the tension through the proximity of Pi and Richard Parker, who, by the way, is computer-generated for much of the movie and blended into the live-action sequences seamlessly. Life of Pi is truly a marvel of technical achievement if nothing else and 3D was made to be used by directors like Lee.
But a technical marvel without a strong character performance is nothing more than a pretty picture. I was amazed to hear that Sharma had never acted before. Not only was the young man asked to channel a dynamic range of emotions (ones similar to those portrayed by Tom Hanks in his famous role in Castaway), but he was asked to do it without anything tangible to react to. Sharma was Pi, quite literally alone on a boat adrift on the ocean with little keeping him alive and less keeping him sane. Yet we watch the boy become a man in the space of a couple of hours, growing from a youth confused and terrified by his fate to a mature survivor who accepts his journey through faith. And faith is what Life of Pi is ultimately all about.
The only issue I have with Life of Pi is one particular bit of dialogue that made me wince. After the adult Pi is done telling his story of survival and rescue, there’s a bit about some insurance men visiting him to get the story for their own records. Without revealing too much here, Pi tells them a different sort of story. This should have been the “aha” moment for the audience, or at the very least, a validation for those who expected it all along. Instead, Lee chose to have Spall’s character blatantly spell out the revelation for any audience members who were still lost at that point. The stories, and how they were connected, were shown beautifully…there was no reason to tell us verbatim.
That bit aside, Life of Pi is a definite contender in the Oscars race this year and should gain recognition for a number of categories. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t in talks for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Writing and a number of technical awards (plus I’d love to see Richard Parker win Best Supporting Actor). While many other films this year told well-plotted and well-executed stories, Life of Pi is the only time I left the theater thinking about more than just the viewing experience itself. The film offers a variety of themes to choose from: religion, survival, humanity, truth, self-discovery, each providing an inexhaustible amount of conversations. Faith plays a huge role in Life of Pi and can be further discussed in a number of ways: faith in a higher power, faith in your loved ones and/or faith in yourself. But the central message, for me at least, was the power of story itself, what it means to the listener/viewer and what effect that has on us as human beings. While I’ve seen some good movies this year, Lee’s Life of Pi is by far the best experience.