Life of Pi's success is visual, rather than dramatic

Floating tiger, standing Pi - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Floating tiger, standing Pi

You will not see a better looking film this year. But you will undoubtedly see better films.

If ever there were an aesthetic case to be made for 3D film, Ang Lee's Life Of Pi is it. Lovely beyond words and taking full advantage of the extra dimension (almost a necessity given that two thirds of the film takes place on the water), the celebrated director (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has composed a film filled with astonishing lyrical beauty and grandiose magical realism. Whether it's a swimmer traversing the crystal clear waters of a Parisian pool or the violent waves that crash and surge during a typhoon, the audience is immersed in, above, and below, water, confronting its unforgiving depths, endless expanse, and utter tranquility. Compound that with glorious schools of flying fish, the leap of a colossal blue whale, and an evening sea aglow with bio-luminescent jellyfish and you have the makings of a singular cinematic experience.

Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy who is the focus of Yann Martel's celebrated novel, is the son of a strict secular father and gentle Hindu mother, an interesting mix of spiritual influences. Still, the ever-inquisitive Pi hasn't found the religion that suits him best, so he begins to dabble in Christianity and Islam as well. When India's economic fate becomes uncertain, Pi's father decides to move the family zoo to Canada. A catastrophic storm hits the Japanese freighter Pi's family has booked passage on, sending the zoo, crew, and loved ones to the bottom of the Pacific. Amazingly, Pi is tossed into a well-stocked lifeboat, along with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger improbably named Richard Parker. As you might expect this unlikely mix of passengers doesn't last long, with those at the top of the food chain — Pi and the hungry tiger — becoming incompatible shipmates in their fight for survival.

The story is episodic, but in its mostly wordless middle section Lee masterfully weaves together the transcendent imagery, emotional stakes, and thematic elements into a tour de force of filmmaking. Dramatically, however, Life Of Pi fares less well than its visuals. Lee and screenwriter David Magee not only rely on the tritest of framing devices — author Martel interviews the adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) hoping to hear "a story that will make me believe in God" — but make the mistake of having the men's banal exchanges undo the film's spell, pulling us out of the adventure in order to deliver yet another needless bit of narration or spiritually didactic dialogue. Even my 10-year-old son complained that the intrusions ground an otherwise thrilling tale to a painful halt.

This comes to an unfortunate head in the film's final, and somewhat condescending, third act, as the thematic underpinnings of Pi's tale are made explicit, verbalized so that even the dimmest viewer will understand the film's thesis on storytelling and faith. It's a cozy, humanistic approach that, to some, seems to absolve Lee of taking sides in a world that has become dangerously divided over religion.

Whatever his ultimate intent, one thing is clear: Ang Lee worships first and foremost at the altar of cinema.

Life of Pi

★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

Dir. Ang Lee; writ. David Magee, Yann Martel; feat. Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain (PG)

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