Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's mega-selling novel Life Of Pi is technically adept, mildly engaging and thematically pedantic. In the early 1970s, young Piscine "Pi" Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his family leave Indira Gandhi's India for a fresh start in Canada. Pi's father is a zookeeper, so they're sharing their cargo ship with his former animals, which they plan to sell as capital. But after a tremendous storm sinks their cargo ship, Pi finds himself alone on the water and forced to learn how to survive alongside testy tiger Richard Parker. The 3D is eye-popping and the film lively with incident, but serious tonal control issues and a sense of over-weaning grandiosity tip it towards kitsch. Critical response following the nearly-completed film's world premiere at the New York Film Festival has already been strong, and a decent commercial response seems all but assured thanks to the 9-million-plus copies of the book sold.
Pi has grown up lightly Hindu, reading comic book renditions of mythology before discovering Christianity and Islam. Refusing to choose, Pi's a devotee of all three. His Indian upbringing is rushed through, the better to get to the first big set piece: the sinking of the cargo ship. Prior to that, there's a confrontation between the largely vegetarian family and a rude cook who snarls "I cook for sailors, not curry-eaters." That cook is a cameo-ing Gerard Depardieu, whose gargantuan presence at this point inevitably tips into self-parody, making it impossible to take the conflict seriously. The scene should be intense, but instead it's downright goofy—the first of many such moments.
With his family drowned, Pi's joined in short order by a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan named Orange Juice and Richard Parker. At this point Life Of Pi kicks into high gear, as Pi tries to keep the animals from killing each other and himself. Eventually Pi screams "Come on!" while brandishing a knife at the snickering hyena. Boy and beasts' uneasy co-existence on the bobbing waves makes for uneasy comedy, the physicality of the situation superbly (and surprisingly plausibly) rendered.
The opening montage of the zoo's animals instantly establishes that the 3D is of the highest possible quality. Lee and DP Claudio Miranda get the seemingly inevitable comin'-at-ya moment out of the way with a hummingbird that flies straight into the camera, but the goal is to establish a realistic sense of depth. The 3D makes complete sense for a film that spends so much time on the Atlantic Ocean. All that unchanging water might be tedious in 2D, but 3D heightens the waves and ripples, creating a true sense of of the ocean's expanse. Big gesture, would-be directorial coups are less successful. There's a lot of god's-eye shots from overhead, observing Pi's boat against the mighty ocean. Some—like the night-time ocean alive with phosphorescence—have the grandeur of a late-'90s PC screen saver, especially when backed by Mychael Danna's "YOU WILL FEEL WONDER" score, which is heavy on magical harps and innocent children singing Latin.
Dramatically, Life Of Pi is a mess, opening with the grown-up Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a curious novelist (Rafe Spall), the pretext for a mess of exposition-heavy voiceover that largely disappears when the building blocks are in place. The writer's there because he heard Pi's in possession of "a story that will make me believe in God." Cast into a Book Of Job-esque situation (the pace takes on a one-damn-thing-after-another choppiness), Pi's eventually reduced to yelling "I am your vessel" at the indifferent skies, but his eventual salvation confirms that God's there, above, rewarding his tested patience. All this is explicitly, endlessly verbalized lest anyone miss the point—not just about belief, but about the leap of faith required of stories both religious and secular. But really, Life Of Pi asks less of its story. It's merely a technical achievement with predigested, unoriginal themes. Viewers can feel good about having seen a "thought-provoking" film requiring zero interpretation or engagement, but Lee never throws them into the lion—make that tiger's—den.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Andrea Di Stefano, Shravanthi Sainath, Ayush Tandon, Vibish Sivakumar, Ayan Khan, Gerard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters: David Magee
Producers: Ang Lee, Gil Netter, David Womark
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: Nov. 21, 2012
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