Many developers have been going darker with the tones of stories lately. It's time we stop asking definitively if this is a good or bad thing and consider the artistic value at hand.
Life of Pi Review (DVD): Left Between Inspired and Wanting
This is a delayed movie review based on the contents of the film’s DVD. I missed the showing of the film (Les Miserables was on the same day and I had to choose one over the other – the clincher: I’ve read Les, I haven’t read Pi). Sorry about that. This review will focus on the film, not the DVD and its special features as, I believe, none could possibly be more special than the film itself.
When I came across the first few posters and advertisements for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi some months back, I immediately wanted to know how that Indian boy found himself stranded on a life boat in the middle of nowhere alongside a stunningly beautiful and frighteningly feral adult Bengal tiger. I didn’t even care that much for the odd title. I knew the movie was an adaptation of a book with the same title. I didn’t know what it was about, but I know that many thought its story “unfilmable.” Well, there are few directors in our time who can prove them wrong the way Lee did. Once again displaying the immense range of his directing prowess and vision (come on, from Face Off to Brokeback Mountain?), Lee took Life of Pi and made it his own.
The story revolves around Pi, an Indian boy who grew up with a strange name owing to even stranger circumstances, and how he became the only known survivor of a sunken cargo ship that was transporting him, his family, and their zoo animals from India to Canada. There’s very little to spoil here in terms of story. Like Castaway, Life of Pi is a movie focused more on the telling of the experience and not the plot per se.
The opening scenes set the mood right for the entire film: a menagerie of animals in various natural settings accompanied by a backdrop of calming music, a novelist waiting to hear an incredible story from a subdued Pi Patel, and a promise of a tale so surrealistically unbelievable the novelist is promised by Pi’s uncle that after he hears it, he’ll believe in God. The core of the film revolves around Pi’s story, but it’s set up as sequences of flashbacks in a pleasant afternoon chat between Pi and his guest. This setting allows for a bit of commentary and back and forth, lighthearted banter between the two, which, especially during the scenes where Pi is trying to stay alive and uneaten by his carnivorous companion, makes for a subtle touch of effective storytelling incongruity. Here is Pi, exuding a serene, almost enlightened aura, calmly talking about vicious storms and life-threatening encounters. So one scene shows the extent of the visceral, immersive, and epic circumstances that Pi found himself in during his time out at sea, and the next scene sees him offer tea to his guest. The way director Ang Lee’s went about his business in this film is top-notch.
So we have Pi Patel, who even in his youth succeeded over the seeming lunacy of his name (Piscine Molitor Patel, after a French resort of the same name) and sought to find himself by being a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim all at once. His errant curiosity is pulled towards science and reason by his father, faith and belief by his mother, and straight into trouble from suggestions by his elder brother. A small personal conflict arises when their family decides to leave just as he found love, but the real and unforeseen challenge is yet to come. On a rainy night out at sea, the wind, rain, and waves take Pi’s ship, claiming nearly everyone on board save for Pi, a tiger named Richard Parker, a hyena, a zebra, and an orangutan who are together on a single lifeboat. After some time on the ocean their small group becomes even smaller; as you can imagine the relationships between carnivores and herbivores fail easily when they’re dying of hunger, thirst, and panic. Soon only Pi and the tiger Richard Parker are left, and only Pi’s resourceful ways and wit stand between him and Richard Parker’s growing appetite. The rest of the story is about Pi’s trials and tribulations, and finally how he came to shore somewhere in Mexico and back into the fold of civilization.
In the end Pi tells his novelist guest how two Japanese insurance agents interrogated him on what happened during and after the ship sank, and he told them his story. They could not believe the story with the animals, so Pi told them an analogous one more tragic and horrible. Pi asked his novelist guest which story he preferred, and he chose the one with the animals. Pi responds “And so it goes with God,” and as the novelist took a peek at the report of the insurance agents, they too chose the story of the animals, commending Pi for surviving 227 days adrift in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger.
It’s a fantastic tale in more ways than one, with layers upon layers of symbolism and allegory and metaphor that it’s the very illustration of fiction. The character Pi, played by several actors based on his age, was appropriately curious, annoying, and subtle when needed. I’d be hard-pressed to say anything negative about the character development and the conflicts Pi faced, and the acting wasn’t special, but sufficient. The plot, true to the book, it would seem, might have suffered from being patched together in the form of flashbacks, but the impact of its delivery never wavered. The production – from the settings to the scenes to the post-production was all very refined, and I would have to give a nod of approval on how intelligently and limited Ang Lee used cinematic CGI rendering in the surreal scenes of the film, especially the bioluminescent aquatic life, Pi’s dream sequence, and the carnivorous island. The sound tracks lent themselves well to the wonders of the story too. I would have to admit, though, that while the story and the film were inspiring, it also left me wanting. Scene after scene I was left expecting something more. The movie might have been overhyped and that’s no fault of the film or the director at its helm, but where I was expecting to be utterly blown away, I was left merely smiling in acknowledgement.
That, however, is something I’ve been wanting to do more for other films – smile in acknowledgement of their art, their message, their delivery. Sadly, few films deserve the merit that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi does. Save for the inherent weakness in storytelling because of the storytelling setting and the acting that could have been more than just sufficient, Life of Pi is a critical success in fiction and film, leaving me wanting, but also truly inspired.
[by G Dino]