A boy and a Bengal tiger get into a lifeboat…
The digital paintbox now available to filmmakers provides an almost limitless variety of visual possibilities, and also a certain amount of temptation, because like any resource, it can be overused. Ang Lee’s last excursion into the marvels of CG was 2003′s ill-fated Hulk; since then, he’s worked on a smaller scale with films like Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock. Now he’s returned to a largely computer-generated palette with his adaptation of Yann Martel’s acclaimed and best-selling novel Life of Pi, written for the screen by David Magee.
As a screenwriter, Magee specializes in sedate magical realist fantasies like Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and for all its spiritual overtones and grand scale, Pi fits into that subgenre as well. Its story, mostly faithful to the novel, is made up of the recollections of the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) as he tells them to a novelist (Rafe Spall) looking for a writing subject. Pi, whose name was originally Piscine, named for a French swimming pool, but shortened because of its unfortunate susceptibility to urinary nicknames, recounts his youth (played by Suraj Sharma), brought up in India as the son of a zookeeping family. Economic pressures cause his parents to decide to emigrate to Canada, and they board a Japanese freighter with all their animals–but shortly into the trip, a terrible storm sinks the ship, killing all aboard except Pi and some of the beasts.
This, a half-hour into the movie, is where Life of Pi really begins. Before long, Pi finds himself alone in the ship’s lone lifeboat with the zoo’s Bengal tiger, who due to a paperwork mix-up is named Richard Parker. The tiger is murderous (strictly to a PG extent), but Pi gradually figures out how to come to terms with him, working out a warily respectful relationship and establishing himself as someone Richard Parker won’t try to eat. The two never become buddies a la The Black Stallion, but they learn to coexist. There isn’t much suspense as to whether Pi will survive, as his middle-aged self is, after all, narrating the story, and thus the tale is really of the lessons young Pi learns from his life with the beast and what it imparts about the nature of humanity and faith.
The tiger, and all the other animals, are almost exclusively depicted via CG animation, and in all technical senses, the achievement is remarkable. Richard Parker has believable mass and weight as he moves, and more than that, his features and movements achieve personality. If there is a flaw to this magic, it may be that the CG is a bit too smooth, too error-free–the movie’s tiger lacks the spontaneity and contradictory nuance of a real living being.
The use of digital animation throughout the film goes far beyond Richard Parker and the other animals, however. The gorgeous skies and waters that surround the lifeboat and raft are computer generated, as are such amazing sights as a phosphorescent whale and an island inhabited only by meerkats. This imagery (to the extent conventional “photography” is involved, the film’s cinematographer is Claudio Miranda, who shot Benjamin Button for David Fincher) is often jaw-droppingly beautiful, so much so, in fact, that it often takes one right out of the movie–watching Pi, you’re more likely to be exclaiming about its technical achievements and exquisite, painterly sights than you are to be involved with its drama. The siren song of new, beautiful technology is an old one–it doomed Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart /back in 1981–and Lee hasn’t been able to resist its call.
And that, ultimately, is the problem with Life of Pi. Unless one is captivated by its superficial mystical and semi-religious undercurrents, it becomes a somewhat monotonous adventure overwhelmed by its own look, with a central character who has little substance and a plot that was more interesting when it featured a volleyball instead of a tiger in Cast Away. The magical realist scenes, for example the sea’s miraculous outpouring of fish to the starving pair, don’t meaningfully illuminate a larger drama, but are awesome strictly because of their visual scale and beauty. Lee has put together a spectacular technical package, also including music by Mychael Danna and production design by David Gropman, that encloses a somewhat tinny center.
There are some who will adore Life of Pi, and indeed find it deeply meaningful and moving due to its invocation of God and spiritual dimensions amidst its glorious sights. For the rest of us, though, it’s a less emotionally satisfying version of yarns we’ve heard before.
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