If you go to movies primarily for the visual experience, you’ll likely love much of Life of Pi. That’s because the film is beautiful, with director Ang Lee fully utilizing his palette to create what is one of the best-looking films I have seen in quite some time. It has already received a huge amount of positive buzz, and while I’ll add my voice in praising the visual quality of the film I can’t say the same for the overall film.
I can best describe Life of Pi as a fairytale for adults. An author (Rafe Spall) meets with Piscine Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan), better known as “Pi” because his full first name unfortunately sounds like “pissing,” because he hears that Pi has an incredible life story. And that he does — Pi, who grew up in India in a zoo run by his father, survived a shipwreck when he was a young man (young Pi is played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) which initially was meant to transport his family and the zoo’s animals to Canada, where the animals could be sold at a high price to North American zoos. Curiously, Pi tells the author that he ended up escaping the shipwreck on a lifeboat, but was trapped with several animals which also escaped on the boat — including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The film follows Pi as he attempts to survive both the Pacific Ocean and the increasingly hungry tiger, and in order to survive Pi, who refuses to kill the tiger because caring for it gives him focus enough to keep him sane while he is adrift, has to learn how to control the tiger while sailing to safety.
Again, there is no denying that the film is beautiful, with incredible contrasts between the colors — both in the early scenes in colorful India and also in the gorgeous open skies of the Pacific Ocean. It also touches upon some spiritual questions — young Pi can be best described as a connoisseur of religions — but it really doesn’t plumb the depths of those religious questions too deeply (nor should an allegorical film like this have to). But the presentation of the film — the effects, the shots, the music, the entire experience in general — has that self-important quality that suggests that it’s supposed to be seen by audiences as an Important and Groundbreaking film, with capital I and G. The unnecessary narrative frame of the older Pi telling the story is imposing and preachy, and what should be left to the audience isn’t — probably because Lee is afraid we’ll miss his point. In fact, after the screening ended (which turned out to be the world premiere, since we were the first public audience to see the film), the Film Society of Lincoln Center sent out a barrage of retweets from other critics immediately extolling the film’s beauty and naming it as a definite Oscar contender. I think that reaction is premature — it certainly deserves consideration in technical categories, but measured against other films that came out this year that will be up for awards it falls short.
Yes, the film is visual eye-candy, but I hesitate to call it “groundbreaking.” There are a number of shots that make great use of the film’s 3D, but since this is an animal film I am sure you could probably guess what most of them consist of. But it isn’t groundbreaking in the sense that Lee’s own Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, because there’s nothing in the film visually that is a breakthrough — but it demonstrates Lee’s mastery of color, and that’s nothing to disregard.
But the beauty of the film can’t prop up a plot that drags. Life of Pi might make great reading, but there are so many sequences at sea and only so much that can visually be done with a lifeboat and color that its two hour run-time is longer than it needs to be. But perhaps the length is meant to hoist the film up as the “epic” it seems like its supposed to be, as if Lee bought into the hyperbole of the film’s greatness and cut the film based on that (Lee mentioned in his pre-screening remarks that he isn’t completely finished with the cut, and I think it would be a good idea to trim it a bit). Then again, there are some wonderful moments of humor that make it seem like it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Much of this stems from Sharma, who does a wonderful job portraying the conflicted and troubled Pi. Though all the other actors in the film are far more experienced than him — including Gérard Depardieu in a very small role (and I definitely didn’t miss the irony of him starring in a film in which the main character has a name that sounds like “pissing”) — Sharma is really the only one who stands out, displaying an admirable amount of emotional depth for a young actor. Well, I would be remiss to not also mention the real life tigers which portray Richard Parker — and the visual artists who made the tiger effects virtually indistinguishable from the real cat. Again, all part of the impressive visual presentation, by far the film’s strongest aspect.
I wonder if those taken with the film will be more enchanted by the idea that this is supposed to be “art” than with the film itself, as a lot of people were with a film like Vanilla Sky — only to realize after repeated viewings that the movie doesn’t carry the punch they initially thought. Or perhaps I will remain in the minority in thinking that Life of Pi doesn’t deserve the hype because despite being adapted from a bestselling novel the story just doesn’t make a great film story. Either way, while I enjoyed Life of Pi I don’t think it will end up making my “Best of” list for 2012, even though I am sure it will make many others.
RATING: As a visual experience it would be a 10, but I prefer films that offer more than just a pretty face (7.0/10).