Life of Pi
David Magee (Novel: Yann Martel)
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Ayan Khan, Mohd Abbas Khaleedi, Vibish Sivakumar
PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril
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A search for God in all things dominates a fraction of this wide-ranging epic about an Indian teenager trapped at see with a hungry tiger named Richard Parker.
Life of Pi is one of Ang Lee's most adventurous films to date. Returning to the fantastical cinematic landscape that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a magnificent spectacle, Lee takes us inside the charmed life of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) whose family is forced to move and ship their zoo overseas. During a great shipwreck, several of the animals flee and join Pi on a lifeboat, struggling to survive. The film is told in flashback as an elder Pi, played by the ever-present Irrfan Khan narrates his far-fetched story to a blocked writer played by Rafe Spall.
As his tale unravels, we discover Pi's uneasy relationship with a large Bengal tiger from his family's zoo. Determined to befriend or at least co-exist with Richard Parker, Pi creates a separate raft out of debris and float adrift on the vast ocean far from the safety of land, fresh water and home-cooked meals. As Pi, Sharma must dominate the screen for the vast majority of the film's running time. Although Khan does a terrific job setting up his grim determination, fierce resistance and frequent bouts of defeatism, Sharma's debut performance is a commanding one.
There are few other characters in the film, including a too-brief appearance by Tabu as young Pi's mother, Adil Hussain's limited performance as his father, and a brief seemingly random cameo by Gérard Depardieu. None of the actors outside of Khan and Sharma have enough time to develop their characters, but that's to be expected in a film called Life of Pi.
That isn't to say there isn't a central character other than Pi. Richard Parker is as significant a player in this drama as anyone and kudos to the wizards at Rhythm & Hues for their dazzling visual effects. Building their designs off a real Bengal tiger, R&H convey a wide range of emotions in their feline antagonist without making it feel cheap or misleading. Likewise, the brief scenes with the hyena, zebra and baboon are equally effective, and the CGI environment created around Pi at sea is certainly spectacular. This is a film that succeeds on the back of its tantalizing effects, but which ultimately lacks the layers of depth I have come to expect from Lee.
Lee looks for the unusual, hoping to capture an aspect of human existence that hasn't been fairly represented on film very often before. From the gay love story of Brokeback Mountain to the twisting war-time political relationship in Lust, Caution, Lee excels when he's focused on love in times of crisis, chaos or inconvenience. Life of Pi may be a personal film for Lee, but his appreciation of human emotion has been delivered more convincingly in the past than here.
For the majority of Life of Pi's running time, we're trying to understand adult Pi's comment that his story would help the listener discover God even if he or she didn't previously believe it. And although Spall's writer becomes taken with the story, there's seldom a moment in the film where you feel like God has suddenly revealed himself to you. Such beliefs are in the eye of the viewer; however, so don't go in expecting to find a lack of faith on display, merely go in with an open mind searching for what you believe.
Life of Pi is a film about finding your destiny. Swimming through a sea of conflict and danger to ultimately discover happiness if one isn't subsumed by that which stands in the way. Discovering more about oneself or reaffirming one's beliefs is a key tenet of a film like Life of Pi and while I cannot say I was much taken in by that concept, there's little doubt that the film is a technological achievement with strong central precepts that may work individually. Whether you think you can find something in a film that largely takes place in the desolate wilds of the ocean should be your secondary concern. Find beauty in your truth and you will find the truth in your beauty.
March 8, 2013