Life of Pi Review
Director Ang Lee and Hollywood have had a bit of a tumultuous relationship. After the release of his acclaimed Chinese trilogy, Lee was given the golden opportunity to direct the British classic Sense and Sensibility. You would think that the switch from Taiwanese to American cinema would prove a substantial challenge, but the flick was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. After this masterful debut, the Taiwanese filmmaker released two box office flops and abandoned heavy drama for the flair of wuxia action cinema with the critically and commercially successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His reputation now rescued, Lee would go on to develop a series of internet short films before accepting an offer to direct the now infamous Hulk. While it made significantly more than its budget, this superhero flick was not well received. Critics immediately called Lee’s directorial chops into question, leaving him to seriously consider early retirement. With some coaching from his family, he returned to direct the award winning low budget drama Brokeback Mountain. This uneven track record has left many critics fearing the worst for this big budget release, especially after a number of high profile directors left the project. Thankfully, Life of Pi is a visually gorgeous film that clearly plays to Lee’s strengths.
Like the book of the same name, Life of Pi begins by providing some insight into Pi’s early life and a detailed look at his religious beliefs. Pi wants to know God. He takes parts of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, morphing the various elements into his own spiritual philosophy. He’ll use this belief system to push him past the various setbacks of this film’s narrative. In India, Pi’s family owns a zoo, and he takes a curious interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. To teach Pi the reality of the tiger’s fierce nature as a carnivore, Pi’s father forces him to witness the tiger killing the goat. While this scene feels a little out of place at first, it also serves as foreshadowing for what’s to come. Economic and political concerns force the Patel family to close the zoo and emigrate to Canada on a Japanese freighter. While near the Marianas Trench, the ship encounters a heavy storm and begins to sink. Pi is thrown overboard with a lifeboat and watches as the ship falls into the deep, taking his family and the crew with it.
After the storm, Pi finds himself trapped on the lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan who lost her child in the shipwreck, a bloodthirsty hyena, and Richard Parker the Bengal tiger. Eventually, all animals save Pi are consumed by the carnivorous feline and he soon realizes that the two much coexist together in order to survive their ocean plight. Pi begins to fish and collect rainwater for the two’s survival. At one point even helps a the cat climb back into the boat after a failed attempt to catch fish. After many days at sea, Pi realizes that he can no longer live this way, constantly fearing for his life, and forces the tiger to acknowledge him as the alpha male. It is this traction between Pi and the tiger coupled with Pi’s strong convictions that keep them alive.
Technically speaking, Life of Pi hits a sweet spot where visual effects seem both impressive and realistic enough to avoid appearing excessive. Richard Parker in particular appears so lifelike in movement and appearance that I doubt many audiences will realise that he isn’t a real tiger until at least half-way through the film. It’s clear that Lee’s experience with Hulk provided the silver lining necessary to give him comfort in a CGI heavy environment, but his background in high drama also benefits the film’s delivery. There isn’t a terrible amount of dialogue in Life of Pi, leaving most of the meanings to be derived from action, body language, and visual cues. Thankfully, Lee’s detailed approach to drama doesn’t leave the events feeling shallow and the film’s thematic approach to spirituality don’t feel contrived, judgemental, or abrasive.
Life of Pi is a very good film, but it isn’t perfect. Lee’s direction of the more emotional moments is both engaging and effective, but the decision to bookend these sequences with cuts to modern times neuters suspense and does a disservice to the consistency of the narrative. It’s nice that the film was attempting to follow the same framing structure as the book, but it this approach really makes the final act lose its steam. If Lee had been willing to lose this fidelity to the book, the film would have been all the better. Still, Life of Pi is easily the best release we’ve seen at the box office in a while.