Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: "Life of Pi"

When Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi was published in 2001, I was hesitant to read it. I have never been one for the mainstream. My personal choices for books, like my preferences for film, lean more heavily towards the obscure. I never did get around to reading it, even after it won the Man Booker Prize, whose winners have spawned Best Picture winners Schindler's List and The English Patient. When I discovered that Ang Lee, the unique director responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), I knew I had to see it. I am not very familiar with Ang Lee's work, having really only seen The Ice Storm (1997). Life of Pi was thought to be unfilmable, with vast amounts of the story involving a teenage boy shipwrecked in the South Pacific with only a tiger for company. And yet Lee, along with screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland (2004) and Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)), created a beautifully told film about a young man's quest for survival. Unfortunately, he did it with needless 3D effects. For the role of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, Ang Lee used four different actors. The adult, Irrfan Khan, has appeared in many Hollywood and Bollywood productions, but the more pivotal role, sixteen year-old Pi, is played by Suraj Sharma, a complete newcomer. I cannot gush as much as other reviewers have, considering Life of Pi has an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes, but the film is truly beautiful to watch and profoundly emotional. The scenes shot at sea are the most jaw-dropping and harrowing of the entire film, were shot in a massive wave tank in Taiwan. It is a credit to technology how lifelike and mesmerizing animated effects can be, but it is also a shame that they are so unreal. At just over two hours long, Life of Pi is an incredible journey. The story is told with such precision and attention to detail that the emotional impact of Pi's incredible quest is just as rewarding as the sheer beauty of Ang Lee's imagery.

The film's opening scenes, in which the adult Pi (Khan) relates the story of how he came to named Piscine Molitor, is by far my most favourite part of the film. Growing up in French India, in Pondicherry, Pi's family was fairly affluent due to his father running the local zoo. Pi is a curious child, and although he has been raised Hindu, he discovered both Christianity and Islam at the age of 12. He has a strong desire to be as close to God as possible. At 16, Pi's family decides to sell their animals and move to Winnipeg. Aboard a Japanese freighter, a huge storm approaches. Pi (Sharma) is the only person who is able to safely make it to the lifeboat. When he regains consciousness, Pi discovers that he is on the lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi must fight animal and nature stranded in the South Pacific to survive.

I am not sure how Life of Pi will fare during Oscar season, considering how many decent films have been and will be released. The two main contenders for Oscar glory seem to be Ben Affleck's Hugo and Tom Hooper's Les Misérables. It will obviously contend well in effects categories, but I am not sure if there are strong enough performances - Life of Pi is more akin to Slumdog Millionaire in that sense. At its core, Life of Pi is a visually stunning. Yet while achieving a visually stunning story, Ang Lee still finds room for character development. There is a twisted brotherly bond between Pi and Richard Parker (the Bengal tiger), and even though a huge chunk of the middle of the film has nothing but ocean, Pi and the tiger, the story moves forward with expert direction. I do feel, however, that I would have been more affected emotionally if I had read Yann Martel's story. The story has such far-reaching appeal that Gérard Depardieu was willing to take a very minimal and unimportant role in the film. It is disappointing that Martel has not achieved the same success since Life of Pi, having published two novels since 2001. American President Barack Obama was so affected by Yann Martel's novel that he called it an elegant proof of God. I am not sure Ang Lee achieved (or is even capable) of achieving the same on screen, but Life of Pi is a beautifully made film. Not as powerful or as visually stunning as I had anticipated, Life of Pi is still a terrifically made film with more than enough emotional integrity.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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