Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Life of Pi"

 4 / 5 

Life of Pi is a glorious visual wonder, a movie that finds ways to astonish the most jaded viewer, a movie that shines and shimmers, that gleefully, gloriously smashes through the boundaries of what has ever before been possible.  It's a technical masterpiece that finds sure, solid footing whenever it finds its main characters at sea for a rousing adventure.

Yet, like novel on which it's based, Life of Pi is somewhat less assured and alternately too vague and too pointed when it tries to pull its various threads together.  This is a story that is very clearly about something significant -- indeed, the most significant things there are: God, suffering, heroism, determination, faith.

The story is simple: A zookeeper's young son, who inexplicably became infatuated with religion while growing up in India, is the sole human survivor of a shipwreck somewhere in the Pacific.  He finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and over the course of many months, they struggle to survive.

Director Ang Lee, who truly deserves the moniker "visionary" after this, and screenwriter David Magee have made the uncomfortable decision to frame the story as a flashback -- a device novelist Yann Martel also used, though much more hesitantly.  The problem with these storytelling bookends in Life of Pi is similar to the trouble director Clint Eastwood ran into when he transformed The Bridges of Madison County from an irritatingly sappy book into a magnificently moving love story: The scenes with modern characters remarking on events in the past come across as talky and stilted.

If the novel Life of Pi seemed unfilmable, it wasn't for lack of remarkable visual imagery found in the story.  Literary and sometimes maddeningly verbose as it is, the novel created an extraordinary series of mental images; the question was whether they could be brought to the screen in a convincing way.

Under the sure hand of Lee and more than 1,400 visual effects artists and technicians, the answer is a startling, satisfying "Yes."  Even in some of its most mundane, land-locked scenes, Life of Pi finds something visually remarkable in virtually every shot.  This is a movie so stuffed with visual splendor that it would pop off the screen without the need for 3-D glasses.

And yet, it is of course in 3-D, and if the dimensionality doesn't quite seem as vital to the audience as it reportedly did to the director, what it does impart beautifully is a sense of being there on that little boat with the boy and his tiger.  Lee even experiments at odd and unexpected times with aspect ratios, switching at one point to widescreen and at another, not long later, to a square 1.33:1 screen, as if to remind the audience that, after all, they are watching a movie.

It is quite a movie indeed, anchored by two notably strong performances, one by Suraj Sharma as Pi and another by a team of visual effects artists who created the tiger, incongrously named Richard Parker.  Sharma is riveting; he has to carry the bulk of the film without another human actor -- an almost impossible task for the most accomplished actor, even more astounding for a novice, but he creates an indelible character in Pi, a boy who struggles simply to stay alive.

Learning that Richard Parker, on the other hand, mostly didn't exist at all is virtually beyond comprehension.  The tiger feels so real, so vital, so genuine as both an animal and as a character that Life of Pi has to be some sort of minor (possibly major) miracle in the annals of filmmaking.

It's a moviegoer's pleasure to spend time in a small boat with these two, watching them struggle to learn each other, encouraging them to stay alive.  Every scene offers something new and engaging, but few more vividly than one in which Pi wonders what Richard Parker is thinking -- and together, they go on a visual tour of the unknowable depths of the sea and of the mind, recalling an earlier Hindu story about the vastness of the universe.

These are the moments in which Life of Pi truly offers something new in moviemaking.  It is a bold experiment, led by a director as sure of his command of actors as he is of technology.  The story is ultimately about less than it might like to be -- or at the very least struggles to bring together the two fundamentally different stories of religious discovery and of survival at sea.  That is a limitation the book itself had, too, and in their desire to simply prove the book could be filmed, it's a relatively small flaw that it hasn't been overcome in the translation from printed word to silver screen.

Here's the bottom line: Life of Pi is like no movie you've ever seen, and its very existence may be the kind of small affirmation of a higher power that would please Pi Patel himself.

Viewed Nov. 24, 2012 -- Cinerama Dome


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