Life Of Pi Review: Don't Fill Up On Turkey, Save Room For Ang Lee's Visual Feast
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Life Of Pi Review: Don't Fill Up On Turkey, Save Room For Ang Lee's Visual Feast

By Joanna Robinson | Film Reviews | November 23, 2012 | Comments ()


The art of the opening credit sequence is something of a lost one. With the exception of this year's Bond film or last year's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you would be hard-pressed to name a recent title sequence that was made with as much care as the nearly four minute opening tour of the Patel family zoo in Ang Lee's sumptuous Life of Pi. Set to the strains of Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri hypnotic "Pi's Lullaby," the camera slowly follows animals both exotic and familiar as they stroll around the grounds. This more than any black, oily Lisbeth Salanders or bloody underwater Bonds sets the tone for the film. Because for all the shipwrecks, CGI'd wonders and snarling tigers, this is a surprisingly quiet and reflective film about human nature and how we (and our faith) can endure even the most harrowing tests.

The action of the film opens up with a conversation in modern-day Canada between an adult Pi Patel (played with warmth and sadness by Irrfhan Khan) and an unnamed author (Rafe Spall, last seen idiotically petting local wildlife in Prometheus) who has sought out Patel in order to hear the story of how Pi survived alone out on the ocean for 227 days. This frame narrative (a slight departure from Yann Martel's best-selling novel) allows adult Patel to weave the story of his youth in India and subsequent adventure on the Pacific and sets up the action of film as a subjective narrative, an almost fairytale. Those familiar with Martel's book already know that a good chunk of the plot takes place in India, long before the Patel family sets sail. The story deals with young Pi's origin, with his naming (Piscine Molitor, after a dreamlike pool in France) and his re-naming (simply Pi, to avoid being teased). That classic hero narrative sets the stage for the epic to come. But what shapes young Pi's life the most is his spiritual quest. He claims to be Muslim and Hindu and Christian and insatiably curious about and open to the powers that be, whatever their number or name. It's this faith that is tested out on the open waters by tragedy, by the awesomeness of nature and the endurance of one boy.

This film is, without question, beautifully shot. Ang Lee is an unrivaled master in capturing the beauty of landscape. From the fog soaked hills of England in Sense and Sensibility to the bamboo forests of China in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the spare and lonely crags of Brokeback Mountain, Lee's sense of place has always been infallible. This film, with its bright, engrossing visuals, has drawn comparisons to James Cameron's Avatar (though with the gut-wrenching shipwreck at the heart of it, a Titanic comparison might be more apt). But barring one nightmarish dream sequence, Lee's film, unlike either of Mr. Cameron's, never loses sight of the human story in favor of spectacle. Shots of the capsizing hull, star-blacking waves or impossibly bioluminescent whales almost always include poor Pi, a small, fragile human somewhere in frame. The vastness of the terrors and wonders only emphasize his struggle and solitude.

Ah, but as the older Pi Patel tells his unnamed author companion, "I wasn't alone." The other star of the film is, of course, an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Played by four real-life tigers and often articulated beautifully by CGI, Pi's companion for 227 days is one of Ang Lee's biggest coups. In a recent interview with Vulture, Lee mentioned how much he learned from what most consider his biggest failure as a filmmaker, 2003's Hulk. What's most evident in Life of Pi, is Lee's newly subtle and restrained hand when it comes to CGI. (A skill Mr. Cameron has never displayed.) In the tiger Richard Parker we have the first successfully articulated and fully emotive CGI creature to not be played by Andy Serkis. And as the teenaged, shipwrecked Pi Patel, newcomer Suraj Sharma is absolutely marvelous. Does his performance verge once or twice on the melodramatic? Sure. But if you can't be melodramatic in the face of a snarling tiger, personal tragedy and a raging storm, when can you be? More often, Sharma is warm and funny and subtle, gamely performing against green screens and opposite computer effects with a maturity and depth that belies his inexperience. In an early shot, when comforted by his mother over his heartbreak at leaving India and, more importantly, his young love behind, Sharma's face silently conveys the deep sadness and sullen stubbornness of a teenager with the perfect, crystalline despair only the young possess.

Young Pi's plot never falters. The only drag on the film is the somewhat antiseptic feel of the Canada-set frame narrative. I doubt this is the fault of the always excellent Irrfhan Khan, but rather a clunky-ish tendency of the screenwriter, David Magee, who specializes in sweetly watchable but slightly clumsy storytelling (Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day). This somewhat flat effect often infects modern adaptations of best-selling, book-clubbish novels. The Jane Austen Book Club, Water For Elephants and half of Julie and Julia come to mind. The spark of the written word doesn't, of course, necessarily translate to the screen. In the words of Lee himself in regards to the challenge of this particular film, "It's an intellectual book, and you have to make it emotional and visual, and without Tom Hanks to help you!" And that's where Life Of Pi flourishes. When Lee uses every visual tool in his arsenal to tell the story. I won't go too much into it, for fear of ruining the plot for those four of you who managed to skip this book, but the theme of reflection, of mirrors and doubles, is absolutely essential for unlocking the magic of Pi's story. If you know that (and just that) going in, then I recommend you take note of how well Lee uses and understands that motif. From the very opening credits. Ang Lee has made an animal story and somehow managed (save one sleepy meerkat) to avoid cutesiness. He tells a story of faith, without proselytizing. He delivers some of the most jaw-dropping visuals of the year without ever once forgetting what makes a movie an enduring classic long after the technology looks quaint. The story. All grown-up in his kitchen in Canada, Pi Patel promises a tale that will make you a believer. And so it goes with Ang Lee.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Uriah Romero

    I wanted to read the book but never got around to it. The movie was
    amazing though. The colorful situations he was presented were both literal and
    figurative. I hope to see this movie again soon. I’ve already added Life of Pi
    to my queue on Blockbuster @Home from DISH, so as soon as it’s available on
    Blu-Ray, I won’t have to scope it out at the store. I saw it with one of my
    DISH coworkers and we would recommend seeing it for sure.

  • Mima

    Beautifully written review

  • altan

    Didn't read the book. The movie was excellent. Good acting, great story, spectacular special effects and CGI that gives reality a run for its money. A must see.

  • amobogio

    Saw Life of Pi this afternoon - truly an amazing film - just gorgeous.
    One cautionary note - there are some other animals lost at sea in addition to the amazing Richard Parker, and what happens to them is not pleasant (the tiger's experience is far from pleasant but he survives). If you are sensitive to animals in pain, be prepared to cover your eyes / ears briefly. DO NOT, DO NOT let it stop you from seeing this movie.

  • layla

    I sometimes wonder how I can be the only person in the known universe that doesn't have mad love for this book. That being said, the movie itself looks visually breathtaking.

  • Kelly

    Layla, you're not the only person who doesn't have mad love for the book. I hated this book with every fiber of my being. HATED it. In fact, being forced to see the trailers for this movie on the television roughly 3 to 4 times a night in the past three weeks often made me want to rip my eyeballs out because it only reminded me of my intense hatred for the book.

  • PerpetualIntern

    I hated the book too!!

  • Holly

    Would it make you feel better if I told you Martel plagiarized another author? And then called this author - a brilliant man, who was also a doctor invested in public service -, a "lesser writer"?

  • MGMcD

    All three of you say you hated the book but none of you have offered a reason why. I'm not trolling or judging, I'm just curious what you found so hateable about it. It wasn't the best thing I've ever read but the writing was serviceable and the story was enjoyable, even though I admit the religious exploration at the beginning was a bit clunky and dragged on (something they wisely abridged in the film version). I was just wondering what inspired such vitriol because I myself didn't have much of a reaction to it other than, "OK, that was fine, on to the next book!" but I did very much enjoy the movie.

  • PerpetualIntern

    I think for me a huge part of it was the buildup. I had SO many people telling me it was this amazing book, and then I felt totally let down. Then I felt left out because I couldn't figure out why people liked it so much. So in other words SO MANY FEELINGS.

  • Wapshin

    Tiger photobomb.

  • apricot ashtray

    I'm a big Pajiba lurker but not tonight baby! This has been one of my favorite books that I've ever had the pleasure to have read. Super stoked to have seen it and you MUST see it in 3D. To watch it in standard format or on dvd would be buzz kill to the experience of how wonderful this movie is. I live in LA near the Arclight theatre and they have some of the best technology in 3D glasses, so maybe the shitty 3D experiences some have gone through is just a theatre being cheapo.
    For many years everyone thought this movie was unfilmable considering a tiger on raft in the middle of the ocean with a human would prove more than difficult. But not Ang Lee and thank the universe for that! Now if they could only turn "Season Of Mist" into a movie I could die just little bit happier.

  • apricot ashtray

    Oh and if you want to hold back the tears without looking like a blubbering wagger just take some chewing gum and chew faster. It worked for me.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Yes to all of this. The movie is BEYOND gorgeous.

  • Did you say Canada? As a Canadian, this is all I care about.

  • Mavler

    Saw this last night in 3-D, a format I'm not usually a big fan of. It was simply stunning. I rarely see a movie in theatres a second time, but I think I'll go again this weekend. And probably again at Xmas with my mum.
    Also, one of the few times I've read the book and not felt like anything was missing from the film adaptation. It's all there ... except the constipation, which is easy to live without.

  • Rudy

    I'm a huge, huge fan of the book and enjoyed the movie as well, but I had the opposite opinion of the 3-D version. I think I'd have enjoyed the movie even more in standard form. 3-D was horribly blurred and honestly, there was only one scene in the entire movie where I 'felt' the 3-D effect, that's not good.

  • lonolove

    I'm dying to see this, but am facing a huge struggle because I KNOW I am going to shame myself with my snorting, sniffling, gasping, choking sobs and red-nosed visage. ACK!

  • Boothy K

    I loved the book, the images and trailer look beautiful...I will be doing the same cry/sob/snorting thing, I'm sure of it...

  • googergieger

    Don't get me started. Where was the pie Joanna? Where was the pie?

  • e jerry powell

    I ate all the pie already. Why, did you want some?

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