“Life of Pi” is the perfect film for anyone who has ever wanted to be nose-to-nose with a 30-foot-tall proboscis monkey.
But if you’re prone to seasickness, you might want to drop a Dramamine before you go.
In his adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Ang Lee is brilliant in his use of 3-D, avoiding mistakes made by most other filmmakers. “Life of Pi” joins “Avatar and “Hugo” as 3-D movies actually worth the increased ticket price. But like those films, “Life of Pi” stirs the senses more than the soul.
Nonetheless, the Oscars are sure to take notice.
After a prolonged documentary-style credit sequence featuring close-ups of monkeys, lizards and birds in a zoo, an unnamed writer calls upon a man with an incredible story to tell.
Piscene Molitor Patel grew up the son of a zookeeper in India. The father is a pragmatic man who believes animals aren’t to be trusted. When a young Pi tries to hand-feed meat to the zoo’s tiger — named Richard Parker — his father yanks him from the cage.
“You think that tiger is your friend?” the frantic father reprimands. “He’s an animal, not a playmate!”
The boy disagrees.
“Animals have souls,” he says. “I have seen it in their eyes.”
This is Pi’s central conflict. He is a seeker, a spiritual dabbler who samples Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. As a young boy, he repeatedly visits a Catholic priest to ask questions about a supposedly benevolent deity. He sees Muslims praying and adopts their customs. At a Hindu ceremony, he releases airborne candle lanterns.
His father points out to him that religion isn’t the candle.
“Religion,” he tells the boy, “is darkness.”
As Pi grows into his teenage years, political events in Pondicherry force the Patels to load the zoo’s animals onto a ship and head for Canada. Mid-voyage, a vicious thunderstorm wrecks their steamer. Pi is separated from his family and escapes in a lifeboat, which he shares with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and, eventually, the tiger. But soon enough, it’s just Pi and Richard Parker.
Much as in Lee’s “Hulk,” the framing sequence for “Pi” takes a long time to develop. This isn’t the kiss of death that it might seem.
As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the dull setup leads into a fantastical other-world. Pi seemingly floats on seas of clouds. Swarms of flying fish strafe the lifeboat. A galaxy of bioluminescent jellyfish lights the night sea.
Aside from the sheer impossibility of what you’re seeing on screen, it’s hard to tell that most of “Pi” was filmed in a huge studio water tank with effects added later. The computer-generated imagery is nearly indistinguishable from reality — nearly.
Sometimes objects fall too fast or the tiger moves too quickly. The 450-pound cat occasionally runs, jumps and paces around the boat without causing the vessel to shift in any way. But you’ll be hard-pressed to discern the difference between the real tiger and the fake one. When young Pi is feeding Richard Parker, there’s a harrowing moment when you are face-to-face with the big cat. It’s a mesmerizing scene. And even more amazing, it could have been CGI.
Lee doesn’t let the 3-D intrude. “Pi” has a couple of silly eye-poker moments — and one truly startling scene — but most of the time the picture is deep rather than bursting through the screen.
As the camera swoops around the ship in the storm, it feels a little too real for comfort. When Pi and Richard Parker are lost at sea, the horizon seems a long, long, long way away.
Lee also saturates each post-shipwreck scene with color and light. Most 3-D films — especially the live-action ones — are too dark. This is done in part to hide the seams of the effects. But, as everyone from Roger Ebert to Martin Scorsese have said, it's also partly because some theaters aren’t using the right equipment to compensate for the shaded 3-D glasses. Nonetheless, the sunsets and the rolling seas in “Pi” rival the environments in “Avatar.”
“Pi” relies heavily on narration. Maybe too much. Sometimes it feels as though the novel is being read to us while someone shows us pretty pictures. By contrast, Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away” was mostly silent when Tom Hanks was stranded on the island, and Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” used fantasy sequences to tell its story of a trapped hiker.
But much of what the film has to say is about religion and feeling forsaken. “Pi” is that rare film that preaches to the faithful without alienating the unchurched. And without that externalized internal dialogue, it would be hard to feel the boy’s struggle. Pi is prone to seeing the world as a living thing — the soul in the tiger, for example — and as he’s anthropomorphized the universe, we need to hear him question his god.
Because the film spans Pi’s life, the character is played by several actors, all effective. We believe the grief of the older Pi (Irrfan Khan), and we feel the innocence of young Pi (Ayush Tandon).
We spend most of our time with the teen Pi (Suraj Sharma). It would have been easy for the surroundings to upstage the young actor, but Sharma holds our attention and gains our hopes for his rescue.
Stories of disaster — whether they’re shipwrecks or plane crashes or zombie attacks — are really about loneliness and a longing for community. They’re about the stories we tell ourselvesabout
ourselves. Are we at our core the people we believe we are?
From the CGI to the subject matter, the film contains several layers of fiction, but regardless of your level of belief, “Life of Pi” always feels true.