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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 21.74%
Average: 26.09%
Pretty Bad39.13%
Total Crap: 13.04%

2 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Life of Pi
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by Brett Gallman

"We bought a zoo! And then it sank."
3 stars

Few films are as technically accomplished and jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Ang Leeís adaptation of ďLife of Pi.Ē Nearly every scene looks like itís fit to be framed, and the film often leaps right off of the screen to draw viewers into its world; however, the filmís story isnít quite up to the task of helping Lee with the heavy lifting. Itís full of Big Ideas and some well-drawn drama, but it ultimately feels like hollow ornamentation.

The film announces its bold intentions pretty early, as Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) supposedly has a story that will make an audience believe in God. A visit from a writer (Rafe Spall) prompts Pi to recount his childhood days in French India, where his parents named him ďPiscineĒ after his uncleís favorite swimming pool in France. After his classmates dub him ďPissing,Ē he shortens his name but still canít shake his outsider status. He reads existential literature and explores various religious faiths; though raised as a Hindu, he begins to seek comfort in Islam and Christianity as well, much to the dismay of his father (Adil Hussain).

Piís recounting of his childhood establishes a suitably whimsical tone, particularly when it keys in on his parentsí zoo. Full of exotic creatures that helps to shape young Piís childlike (and perhaps naÔve) view of the world, the zoo also presents Leeís lush visual palette and production design, both of which help to outrun the clunky mechanics of adapting Martelís talky frame story. The elder Piís narration often intrudes, and, in an ominous sign, provides an unnecessary commentary, an expected side effect of a novel thatís built on internal narration.

The trickiest part comes during the filmís main conflict; when faced with financial difficulties, Piís father decides to sell his zoo and move his family to Canada. Along the way, the ship encounters a massive storm and capsizes, leaving Pi stranded in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Since he was a child, Pi has been in awe of the beast and has insisted (despite his fatherís admonitions) that he has sensed a soul behind the eyes of Richard Parker. His faith in this--and his various gods--is tested when the two endure a 200+ day odyssey at sea, where they drift among unfavorable tides and encounter a seemingly mythical man-eating island.

Itís the stuff of high fantasy, and itís wonderfully embellished by Lee, whose visual flourishes and bold, painterly compositions transform Piís story into a fable. Martelís novel is pretty dense stuff and mostly propelled by Piís internal monologues, but this section of the novel makes a graceful transition to the screen. Leeís paints on a canvas of pure cinema, and Claudio Mirandaís photography works in tandem with Michael Dannaís score to create some dazzling, rich sequences that are a joy to behold. Even the 3D, which is usually a trimming I rarely note, is astounding in its clarity and depth. This is a majestic, soaring, and vibrant recollection of a manís horrific, harrowing tale, an approach that seems contradictory but is eventually justified by a turn late in the film.

That turn is the filmís most contentious point, though itís inherent in the source material itself. As Piís story becomes more outlandish, his audience (and ergo, the filmís audience) becomes more wary about its veracity, so the third act tackles this head on with ponderous and obvious sermonizing that tacks the filmís message right on your nose before hammering it in for good measure. The twist in events is the filmís conceit, and, without it, ďLife of PiĒ would be a relatively straightforward survival tale. Iíve seen ďLife of PiĒ referred to as young adult lit in some circles, which is a disservice since Martel tackles heavy themes concerning the relationship of faith and reality; both Pi and the audience must confront this relationship and decide how it works out. The point is obvious (and is made even more obvious by the dialogue), but it amounts to a freshman level reading of how these forces work, especially since Pi himself should probably be okay with his audienceís healthy dose of doubt (after all, he canít even stick to one faith himself).

Further muddying the thematic waters is just how much of a downer either story is, anyway; sure, Leeís grandiose vision renders Piís ordeal into something of a romanticized dream, but even it doesnít come without sobering truths, particularly as it pertains to his relationship with Richard Parker. Just as William Blake employed a tiger as a reflection of Godís contradictions in its fearful symmetry, so too does Martelís novel see Richard Parker as the crucial symbol for Piís faith. In Richard Parker, Pi observes all of the godsí possibilities: their capacity for mercy (that Richard doesnít eat Pi alive is a miracle), terror, and even ambivalence, as the filmís lasting impression is Richard Parkerís disinterested glance and unceremonious exit.

For a film that often deals in rousing, life-affirming sentiment, ďLife of PiĒ engages this ambivalence in a strange, off-putting way; even its structure doesnít even seem to be all that concerned with the inherent drama of the situation since Piís survival is an inevitability. His fate isnít the point, of course, but the film is ultimately difficult to engage; itís a wonderful movie to look at, but itís not one thatís consistently compelling to truly watch and absorb. Technically, itís crafted with incredible precision, from the lushness of the visuals to the effects that bring Richard Parker to life (this is one of the most seamless and believable uses of CGI in ages). Newcomer Suraj Sharma even shoulders the film admirably as the adolescent Pi; his performance is marked by dignity and humility that conjures up sympathy.

Both Lee and Fox deserve credit for the risk taken here; Martelís novel is a difficult one to adapt (itís even garnered the ďunfilmableĒ in some circles), and Lee was apparently given free range to tackle it without a whole lot of star power at his disposal as well. Iíll stop just short of calling it an admirable failure; like the book itself, the film just leaves me adequately whelmed. Forget God--I would have just settled for believing all of this really meant something.

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originally posted: 11/24/12 18:25:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/06/18 Barbara Leaf I just didn't get the tiger thing. Maybe Indian Cultural? Not for me, sorry. 2 stars
1/20/14 Simon Beautifully shot and memorable imaging. Even the ultimately vanilla themes are done well 4 stars
2/26/13 Geraldine Visually stunning and captivating. 4 stars
1/28/13 urbane standifird Worth the $8.50 to see. Stunning visuals and entertaining but very shallow and confusing. 4 stars
1/10/13 Chrysler Dodds Bunch of overblown arthouse crap 1 stars
12/27/12 Man Out Six Bucks Tiger should have been the protagonist. Pi belongs in a call centere 2 stars
12/06/12 Alain not even entirely 3D 1 stars
12/03/12 Bob Dog Waste of time - including the 3D 1 stars
12/01/12 Tom Biegel Overblown hype 2 stars
11/27/12 Bert I enjoyed this movie. 4 stars
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  21-Nov-2012 (PG)
  DVD: 12-Mar-2013


  DVD: 12-Mar-2013

Directed by
  Ang Lee

Written by
  David Magee

  Tobey Maguire
  Irrfan Khan
  Sonu Sood
  Suraj Sharma
  Adil Hussain

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