[Review] – Life Of Pi

3 Dec

Film Review Life of Pi

Title: Life Of Pi
Year: 2012
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall
MPAA Rating: PG, emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril
Runtime: 127 min
IMDb Rating: 8.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Metacritic: 78

Ang Lee is a terribly talented filmmaker. We all know that, from Sense and Sensibility to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain, the guy can transcend genres and limitations and simply deliver spectacular work. The last film we had seen from him was Taking Woodstock, some kind of misstep from him, not because it wasn’t particularly good (it wasn’t great, but there were some fun moments) but because it just didn’t feel like an Ang Lee picture, it seemed far too light and fluffy for him. Now there’s Life of Pi, the adaptation of Yann Martel‘s novel, and all I know is that, between this and Cloud Atlas, “unfilmable” books have made for some spectacular films this year.

Granted, the fact that we’ve had two challenging and complex novels that really don’t appear to lend themselves to movies (narratively that is, visually the novels are plenty cinematic) that have turned out to be two of the highlights of the 2012 movie year is due to the fact that, let’s face it, 2012 has been a wonderful year for movies and, secondly, both of those films have been made by great auteurs. Because really, props to Mr. Lee, this film is just gorgeous to behold, and parts of it same rich emotional punch of some of his best movies, even if some others don’t.

The titular Pi is Pi Patel, a young man from India whose family owns a zoo there. Then, when he’s 16, his father decides to move the family to Canada over political concerns in India, booking tickets for his family as well as his animals (hoping to sell them once in America) on a Japanese freighter. Then a heavy storm strikes the vessel and Pi is thrown overboard with a lifeboat, watching as the ship sinks with his family still inside. As you may have seen from the trailers or posters, Pi is cast away in a lifeboat with a bengal tiger, named Richard Parker.

It’s truly an epic story of adventure and self-discovery as you get to see Pi forging this truly unbelievable connection with the only other living thing near him, getting the tiger to see him as a friend instead of a potential meal. How Mr. Lee does all of this, how he manages to explore some really complex themes at hand in this story, is amazing, it makes the film feel audacious as hell, and of course it doesn’t hurt having it all look as breathtakingly beautiful as it does here through the lens of cinematographer Claudio Miranda.

What’s more is that I didn’t love this film as much as others have, I’ve heard people being just absolutely enraptured by this whole thing. I liked it a lot, I think it’s an absolutely great movie, but a part of me does feel like this one of those cases in which I respect something more than I downright love it. I respect that Fox 2000 Pictures had the balls to give this the $120 million budget it deserved even though it had no big-name stars attached, I respect that Ang Lee made this in the first place, and I respect us, the audience, for giving this one a solid box office performance which may make people realize that these kinds of movie can connect.

I don’t want to seem detrimental when I say that I respected more than I loved this movie. I’ll still give it a really high grade because I believe it should be seen, it’s just that I can’t call it a masterpiece or something like that when I didn’t feel as connected to it emotionally as I would have ideally liked or as I’ve heard so many others say they have been. I loved how it tackled issues of philosophy and spirituality, about how it saw a battle between real emotions and a cynicism and went with it throughout the movie, exploring whether animals had souls or not. But I was left in the middle of that question with the film itself, I loved what I saw but I didn’t know quite what to make of what I felt from its soul.

Obviously that was one of the biggest challenges in adapting the novel. Wherein the novel you had pages of pages dedicated to really interiorizing the struggle of Pi so that you could feel the soul of it all in companionship to the visually dazzling spectacles described, here it’s much harder to really get the emotional journey across, which is why so much of the film relies on the visual stuff to do the narrative lifting. Granted, the visual stuff is just magnificent, the shipwreck sequence especially, but even as Mr. Lee stylizes every little bit of his storytelling I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t connecting to it on a deep enough level, no matter how much I drooled over the sights.

Maybe it was because, as a precise consequence of having this limited canvas with which to exteriorize the internal struggles of Pi, some of the messages of spirituality seemed, at times, a bit heavy-handed. I know this is a story about how connected we are to God, and I understand why that made the book such a bestseller, and it’s a beautiful message, but here sometimes I just wanted to get that stuff dialed down so that I could focus more on the gorgeous stuff at the surface, both because it was mesmerizing to behold but also because I didn’t have someone telling me exactly how to feel in those instances.

Still, that’s me being nit-picky and trying to explain (to myself, mostly) why I didn’t love the heck out of this movie like so many people who I know have. Those issues of mine aside I have to, again, congratulate Ang Lee for this undertaking, for delivering a film that’s so imposing and that really uses the CGI technology that’s derided by most of us self-proclaimed cinephiles to create stunning visual poetry.

Because this really is Ang Lee’s show. He cast either unknowns or international actors for the roles here (Tobey Maguire was at one point part of the cast, but Mr. Lee replaced him because his face was too famous and would take away from the experience he wanted to create) and relied on the story and the visuals to do the talking. Thanks to the fact that it’s a filmmaker as gloriously talented as he is behind the lens, that’s achieved in spades. Mostly because, as delicious as the images are, you always feel like he’s in control of it all, like there’s some restraint even in the most flashy of scenes.

This is a filmmaker who has proven to have very eclectic tastes as far as the themes he tackles, and here toys around with digital effects in a way that seemed genuinely original to me. The world he creates is astonishing, grounded in reality but also depending on digital sorcery to make it feel more like a fable world of sorts.

Audiences will no doubt love the hell out of this movie, as they should, but I feel the need to explain myself as to why I didn’t go gaga over it as much. I wanted the story to have more breathing room, I wanted a Pi that was better acted than what the young Suraj Sharma gives us (it’s a decent performance, but not one to anchor a two-hour-plus movie with), I wanted just a little bit less at times and little bit more at others. Nevertheless, Life of Pi is a film to be admired and to be reckoned with, and one you should all go see.

Grade: A-

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