If 3D gets a bad rap, it’s often for good reason. Done badly, 3D drives up ticket prices while adding nothing to the experience; done very badly, it robs you blind while destroying the picture. But every so often, a movie comes along that reminds you of how powerful the technology can be when wielded by a master craftsman. Ang Lee‘s stunning, vibrant Life of Pi is one of those cases.

After receiving strong early buzz thanks to some alluring clips and teasers, Life of Pi had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival this week. Lee cautioned us ahead of time that he was still putting the final touches on the movie, so the version that hits theaters may differ slightly from the one we saw. But whether he makes a few last tweaks or not, it’s clear that Life of Pi will be a worthwhile cinematic experience.

Based on the book by Yann Martel, Life of Pi frames the main narrative as part of a conversation between the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) and a creatively blocked writer standing in for Martel (Rafe Spall). The scribe has been referred to Pi by a mutual acquaintance, who claimed Pi had “a story that would make you believe in God.” And so the grown-up Pi explains his tale, starting with a childhood spent roughhousing with his brother Ravi, getting to know God(s), and marveling at the animals on his family’s Pondicherry zoo.

During Pi’s high school years, his father (Adil Hussain) decides to move the family from Canada to India, selling off their menagerie on the way. Pi, Ravi, their parents, and several exotic creatures board a Japanese cargo ship headed across the Pacific. Tragedy strikes in the form of an enormously destructive storm, which kills very nearly everyone on board the ship, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with only a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.

To portray the young Pi, Lee plucked newcomer Suraj Sharma out of thousands of hopefuls. The choice seems like a risky one, to be sure. Sharma is tasked with carrying much of the movie on his slender shoulders, often in long sequences that show the actor either lost in thought alone or yelling at a CGI tiger. (An extremely well done CGI tiger, I might add.) The role would be a tall order even for a more experienced actor, but Sharma carries it off with aplomb. While Life of Pi isn’t quite a star-is-born moment for the actor, his winningly sincere performance here promises even better ones to come.

Much less successful is Lee’s decision to intercut the young Pi’s adventure with scenes of the older Pi talking to Spall’s unnamed writer. Life of Pi‘s literary origins are never more obvious, and never more intrusive, than in those portions of the movie. In shots of the Patels’ zoo, or Pi’s time at sea, Lee offers us the time and space to truly soak in the experience — to ponder God, nature, the human spirit, and all the mysteries of the universe, as reflected though cinema. Then, as though Lee fears we won’t get what he’s doing, we’re forced to watch Khan and Spall’s characters review and recap. In one particularly egregious instance, the younger Pi tells an allegorical tale in one scene, only to have Spall explicitly spell out all the underlying meanings (“so the zebra is the sailor, and the orangutan is your mother…”) in the very next.

Nor does it help that the two men constantly assure each other that the tale will “make you believe in God.” Either it will or it won’t (for me, it didn’t), but any lingering spiritual effect won’t be enhanced by a character we don’t care about insisting on the movie’s profundity. Keep in mind, also, that Spall is an obvious stand-in for Martel and, by extension, Lee. By heaping praise upon Pi’s story, Lee and Martel are effectively patting themselves on the back.

But if the screenplay leaves something to be desired, the imagery, at least, is a wonder to behold. During its years in development, Martel’s novel picked up a reputation for being “unfilmable.” After seeing Lee put this story to film, however, it’s tough to imagine it in any other way. The visuals in Life of Pi aren’t just beautiful, they’re jaw-dropping in a way that’s specifically cinematic.

The movie’s bravura sequence is a wordless one that illustrates Pi’s musings via stars that turn into fish, which melt into an image of his mother’s face. All along, the 3D enhances the experience by replicating the expansiveness of the ocean — breadth and height may be constrained by the edges of the screen, but the depth seems to stretch out indefinitely. Perhaps Martel’s novel contains a chapter that captures much of the same thoughts and provokes much of the same emotions, but only a movie could express them in quite this way.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10

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