Dazzling "Life Of Pi" Overcomes Its Flaws

As a filmmaker, Ang Lee is nothing if not adaptable. His filmography reveals a sense of cinematic open-mindedness – or, at least, restlessness. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hulk,” and “Brokeback Mountain” are entirely distinct works, all three operating on different narrative and visual levels. You could argue that each film is a different floor of the same building, but it’d be a mistake to assert that Lee’s body of work is anything less than adventurous. He’s made a patchwork out of his career, and his latest is an appropriately elastic exercise in oral and visual storytelling. “Life Of Pi” is startling in its visual beauty, but even more so in its ability to provoke a different reaction from individual audience members. No one’s take will be exactly the same. There are some bumps along the way, but “Pi” is a tremendous accomplishment and Ang Lee’s strongest work to date.

Based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, the picture traces a boy’s journey through childhood, where he begins a very particular relationship with God, and into adulthood, where he’s forced to reconcile his faith with a deep sense of loss. Piscine Patel – nicknamed Pi – narrates the story from the modern day to a writer who’s heard rumors of the magnificence of Pi’s life story. Indian actor Irrfan Khan is perfectly suited to play the adult version of Pi, as the weariness in his eyes goes a long way in reflecting the story he’s telling. Rafe Spall is less successful in his portrayal of the writer, but his green-behind-the-ears disposition harmonizes reasonably well with that of his subject. The present day scenes are some of the weakest in the picture, especially those in the first act, but they become an absolute necessity by the film’s climax.

Young Pi is the son of a zoo owner, a bluntly rational man with no time for his son’s thoughts on religion. While growing up in India, Pi assumes his faith from Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, forming a distinctly New Age outlook that might turn off some viewers – but the bottom line is that his belief in a higher power in unshakeable. In attempting to befriend his father’s adult Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker thanks to a mix-up in paperwork), he’s scolded for his rejection of science – particularly that the tiger would kill him if given the chance. As Pi grows into a teenager, the family decides to move to Canada, bringing their lot of animals with them. In the midst of a brutal storm, their ship sinks and Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with a handful of creatures, including Richard Parker. In the ensuing months at sea, Pi (played at this age by Suraj Sharma) forms a hard-earned friendship with the tiger as the two depend upon each other for survival.

Despite the fanciful nature of the narrative, Ang Lee and writer David Magee do a terrific job in walking the line between realism and the supernatural. The special effects are so good that it’s not always clear as to whether we’re seeing a real tiger, an animatronic model, or a fully animated creature. Some of the visuals – like a submerged Pi staring at his sinking ship as it plunges into the darkest depths of the sea – are destined to stick with filmgoers long after they’ve left the theater. By the time the story introduces its more psychedelic visuals, we’re so enveloped in the story that we barely question the nature of these developments. For much of the film, the narration drops out and we’re left with a boy and his tiger in the middle of ocean. And it’s absolutely transporting.

In lieu of completely spoiling the film’s conclusion, I will reveal that it’s suitably ambiguous and will speak differently to people from all walks of life, religious or not. When the clunkiness of the first act fades away, we’re left with a heartbreaking tale of growing up as a primal force of nature. The allegorical quality of Pi’s experiences is certainly applicable to anyone that’s experienced similar emotions (read: just about everyone), and the gorgeous visuals only make the story more palatable. More specifically, not getting to say “goodbye” to a loved one is one of the most distressing parts of the human condition, but “Life Of Pi” confronts it head-on with mostly poetic results. With “Life Of Pi,” Ang Lee gets to add another piece of cloth to the tapestry of his career, and it’s the most beautiful one yet. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 21, 2012
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriter: David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irffan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall
MPAA Rating: PG (for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril)