Life of Pi

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/25/12 23:14:53

"Dude, Where's My Tiger?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The cinema is, above all things, a visual medium and as such, there are few things about it that I cherish more than to sit down and be transported by a filmmaker with the imaginative ambition and technical finesse to take viewers to places that they have never before been and show them things that they have never before seen. On the other hand, I am equally appreciative of films that provide viewers with interesting and well-constructed narratives that are thought-provoking without being heavy-handed and clever without resorting to cheats or lame-brained plot twists. While the best films are those that provide audiences with both, it is more often the case that there is a deep schism between most movies in the sense that they oftentimes tends to stress one of those two extremes to the expense of the other and that is certainly the case with "The Life of Pi," Ang Lee's long-awaited adaptation of Yann Martel's celebrated best-selling novel. From a visual standpoint, the film offers up one glory after another and sweetens up the eye candy with one of the best deployments of the usually tiresome 3-D gimmick that I have ever seen. At the same time, however, all of these splendors are in the service of a storyline that is so thuddingly banal that I found myself beginning to question both the taste and sanity of those who have revered the book over the years.

The film tells the incredible adventures of Pi (Irrfan Khan), a modest and unassuming Indian, as he relates them to a Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall) who has been put in touch with him by a mutual acquaintance who has assured him that there is a good story to be had. Back in India, Pi (and yes, his rather unusual name is explained at great length) and his family ran a small zoo and he quickly developed a fascination with the animals, including one with a tiger by the name of Richard Parker (whose name is also explained at length) that almost costs him an arm and earns him a graphic lesson about how such animals are not pets and how any human characteristics one might seem to detect are merely a reflection of what people would like to see in them instead of their violent reality. A few years later, when Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) is a teenager, his father is forced to sell the zoo and books passage for the family and a few choice on a cargo ship heading for Canada.

This is not particularly to Pi's liking--he doesn't want to leave his home, the zoo or the heart-stoppingly beautiful girlfriend that seems to turn up in every movie featuring characters of Indian descent--and the foul-mouthed and wildly racist ship's cook (Gerard Depardieu) doesn't improve matters much but he eventually resigns himself to the upcoming changes in his life. During that voyage, Pi's life is indeed changed forever when a violent storm comes out of nowhere and sinks the ship. taking his family and most of the animals with it. Miraculously, Pi manages to escape the catastrophe and winds up in a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere along with a wounded zebra, a nasty hyena, a beatific orangutang and, perhaps inevitably, Richard Parker. Before too long, the population of the lifeboat is reduced to Pi and the tiger and for the next 200+ days, they cross the Pacific on an adventure so unlikely and improbable--after all, being trapped in a lifeboat with an increasingly hungry tiger seems like something straight out of a Buster Keaton film--that it cannot possibly be as Pi conveys it. . .or can it?

Since the book's publication more than a decade ago, so many filmmakers have flirted with bringing "The Life of Pi" to the screen--Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M. Night Shyamalan among them--only to eventually depart it that many became convinced that it was just one of those books that could never properly be brought to the screen. That said, the eventual hiring of Ang Lee to direct the project was theoretically a stroke of genius because besides being an extraordinarily gifted director in his own right, his past efforts have demonstrated a facility for the two key cinematic assets necessary for anyone hoping to pull it off--an astonishing visual sense that presents the impossible a surprising amount of emotional grace amidst all the pyrotechnics (which he demonstrated in both the still-stunning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and his wildly underrated superhero masterpiece "Hulk") and a flair for telling stories about seemingly impossible relationships (which he has tackled in films as otherwise diverse as "Sense & Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Brokeback Mountain"). From a visual standpoint, Lee knocks this one out of the park right from the start as he, with the aid of cinematographer and countless platoons of CGI artists, presents one visual miracle after another. There are not only sights on display here of the sort that I have never before seen in a film, there are sights that I never even dreamed that I would ever see in a film. Adding to the mystique is Lee's usage of 3-D not as a tiresome gimmick but as an essential tool with which to tell the story properly. The end result belongs right up there with James Cameron's "Avatar," Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and Wim Wenders' "Pina" on the list of the very best cinematic uses of the format and demonstrates conclusively that it can be genuinely impressive in the hands of people who know how to use it properly.

The trouble with "The Life of Pi" is that for all the visual wonders that Lee has managed to conjure up here to dazzle the eye, they are ultimately not enough to distract from the painfully obvious fact that they are ultimately not enough to distract from the thin and borderline condescending nature of David Magee's screenplay. For starters, the entire framing device involving the journalist is a wash that inevitably robs the film of a good deal of its dramatic tension (while we can probably surmise going in that our hero will somehow survive his ordeal, there is no real reason to confirm it by having him relate the saga to someone else years later) and forward momentum (whenever the story begins to develop a head of steam, it loses it every time it cuts back to the increasingly incredulous reporter reacting to the latest twist) without adding anything to the proceedings other than a Caucasian face. Then there is the tiresome opening act chronicling the young Pi as he embarks on a spiritual quest that eventually finds him embracing parts of every religion, much to the consternation of his father, who decries his son's ecclesiastical cherry-picking as being more along the lines of indecisiveness rather than all-inclusiveness. Obviously the film wants us to side with Pi and his winsomeness but I dunno--his father's denunciation of his behavior has a ring of truth that the film doesn't really seem to know how to handle. Some people may find this section to be thoughtful and spiritually enlightening but I found it to be a crock that added nothing to the proceedings and only serves as an unnecessary delay from the stuff involving Pi at sea that is meant to be the heart of the story.

Unfortunately, that material turns out to be equally uninspiring from a dramatic standpoint. Simply put, I didn't buy any of it for a second--certainly not literally and not as an extended metaphor either. For one thing, I never believed that I was watching a human and a tiger interacting and without that, much of what follows inevitably falls flat. I realize that the tiger is largely a CGI creation that was not there for Sharma to respond to and I am fairly certain that SAG has rules against putting their members in the proximity of man-eating beasts but as last year's stunning "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" demonstrated, an on-screen relationship between a human actor and a CGI animal can be convincingly depicted as long as it is done properly and with care. Since it is difficult to work up much of a rooting interest in either Pi or the tiger (though I admit to leaning towards the tiger), there is not much of anything to do except to wait for the next glorious vision to come along and after a while, even they begin to lose their luster (and when you can't get a rise out of an island seemingly overrun with meerkats, something is clearly wrong). Then there is the ending, one of the most infuriating to come along in a while. Without delving into specifics, I will simply say that it appears as though Lee lost faith in his audience and their ability to recognize a metaphor when they are clubbed over the head with it and therefore offers up a couple of exceptionally grisly speeches in which everything is spelled out in painful detail and to make matters worse, it offers up an alternate explanation for the adventures that we have seen, it actually sounds far more interesting than the gibberish that we have just witnessed.

Since I have not heard any outraged complaints from fans of the book about how it was butchered by the heartless Hollywood jackals, I am going to assume that the combination of "Slumdog Millionaire," "Lifeboat" and "The World of Commander McBragg" being passed off as "The Life of Pi" is indeed faithful to the novel and will therefore scratch it off my list of books to read in the future. And yet, despite its enormous dramatic failings, it is difficult to write the film off completely because of the gorgeous spectacle that Lee has conjured up. Perhaps if he had figured out a way of simply transcending the narrative in order to put on a purely cinematic orgy of light and sound along the lines of what Terrence Malick did with the sequence chronicling the evolution of the world in "Tree of Life," it might have been truly astounding. Unfortunately, every time it seems poised to do just that, he is dragged back to Earth by the increasingly dippy drama to which he has been unceremoniously yoked.

Then again, perhaps no film version of this particular tale could have ever been completely satisfying--I suspect this is one of those tales that works best in one's mind where all of the elements hold the same amount of psychological or emotional weight. All I know is that when it was finally over, I had a sudden urge to see "The Black Stallion" again. Like "The Life of Pi," it tells a story that involves a boy and a wild animal thrown together in the aftermath of a shipwreck but told its story in a manner that was visually ravishing both spiritually and emotionally uplifting without being smug about it. By comparison, "The Life of Pi" maybe be a spectacular technical achievement but when all is said and done, it is as dramatically and emotionally hollow as a Saturday morning cartoon.

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