Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adrift Until Inevitable, Life Of Pi Is More Erratic Than Great!

The Good: Good direction, Decent plot progression, Interesting protagonist, Good acting
The Bad: More character description than actual character development, Some of the CG animals are painfully obvious.
The Basics: Visually impressive, Life Of Pi tells a somewhat predictable story that is fractured into three distinct sections that does not work in an extraordinary fashion.

My wife has been reading quite a bit lately and I swear all she is getting through are the books her mother left for her on the Nook she gave her. So, when she finished reading Life Of Pi yesterday, she put the film on our list and given that the local library actually had the DVD in today when I went in, it got knocked to the front of our queue. Life Of Pi is based upon a novel and it is worth noting up front that I have not read the book. As such, the immediate comparison for me was actually to Slumdog Millionaire (reviewed here!); not just because much of it is set in India, but rather because it tells a story of an interview in which a character relates pretty much their entire life.

Life Of Pi is a young man’s journey through the religions he encounters in India and one suspects that if the film version of Eat Pray Love and the novel upon which it was based had not already softened up the market, the film would not even have been made. As it is, Life Of Pi tells a character-driven story that explores various faiths and makes an implicit argument for faith over rationalism. As an atheist and a rationalist, Life Of Pi is entertaining fantasy, but not a work intended to sway those to any specific theistic view. It also becomes an excuse for director Ang Lee to play with a bigger cinematic and CG canvas than many of his prior films.

Opening in Winnepeg, a reporter begins to interview Pi Patel about his life. Pi explains the origin of his name (his name is a nickname, an abbreviation, for the name of the swimming pool that amazed his uncle) and describes growing up in the zoo his family owned. As a child, he was raised Hindu, but on a dare, he enters a local church to drink some of the holy water and in the process begins to ask questions (and get answers from the minister) about Christianity. Soon after he becomes fascinated with Christianity, he also begins to learn about Islam. Despite his father’s pleas for him to take a rational approach, Pi is baptized and also continues to explore his Muslim faith. He falls in love with Anandi, but shortly thereafter, his family hits hard times and decides to move. They board a Japanese ship bound for Canada with animals from the zoo that they are not able to sell.

Unfortunately, over the Mariana Trench, the ship goes down and Pi finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with the zoo’s zebra and a hyena (though he had also rescued the family’s tiger, Richard Parker). Soon, Pi has a virtual ark as an orangutan finds her way to the boat, too. When the hyena kills the zebra, Pi’s faith is shaken, though his life is saved by Richard Parker. To avoid getting eaten by the tiger, Pi takes his provisions and makes a makeshift raft, which he tethers to the boat. Adrift together, Pi and Richard Parker struggle for survival.

Life Of Pi is structured in a sensible, if obvious way. Given that the latter half of the film is devoted to Pi’s physical journey across the ocean, the first third of the movie is pretty much necessary in order to get the viewer to actually care about Pi. Unfortunately, a decent stretch of the film is a disconnect between the character at the beginning and on the journey across the ocean; Pi is not portrayed as a young man of particular spirituality for much of Life Of Pi. Instead, he’s just a guy starving for a couple of days before he starts to pray. Even after he prays, Pi spends more time detailing his survival techniques as opposed to viewing his struggle as a test of his faith. So, Pi becomes more of an everyman as opposed to a man of special ability or profound faith.

In some ways, Life Of Pi becomes a pretty archetypal buddy drama between a human and an animal. For sure, a tiger is an atypical “buddy animal,” but the plot progresses pretty much the same as it does with other stories of animal/human bonding. A decent amount of time is spent with Pi trying to fish in order to be able to feed the tiger and with Richard Parker working to get back into the boat after he takes things into his own paws!

Life Of Pi is largely a typical survival story. The standoff between Pi and Richard Parker is an interesting one, but that is mostly because it is filled with visually interesting incidents. Together they survive a glowing humpback whale, a swarm of flying fish and Pi training the tiger with a stick and leftover fish. Because the character disconnect exists (reason and classical conditioning account for much more of the pair’s survival than any influence by the Divine), the movie relies upon a decent performance to succeed. Suraj Sharma dominates Life Of Pi as Pi (though Irrfan Khan plays the adult version of the character just fine). Sharma has to interact with virtual characters and environments excessively, so his commitment to the character is intense and displays an amazing sense of performance. Despite some of the creatures looking clearly CG, Sharma’s performance never makes one believe he is not Pi in an entirely real world.

Unfortunately, like many survival stories, Life Of Pi meanders and becomes something that struggles to be entertaining. Director Ang Lee creates a visually incredible sequence wherein Pi and Richard Parker look to the bottom of the sea, but the somewhat pointless (though entirely beautiful) bit comes right before the viewer is forced to watch a tiger getting beaten up. Animals getting the crap kicked out of them and people and animals starving is hardly entertaining.

The net result is an epic film that starts philosophical, but loses its whimsy for stark realism. Life Of Pi was worth watching once, but I cannot imagine wanting to add it to my permanent collection to revisit again and again.

For other works with Rafe Spall, please visit my reviews of:
The World’s End
One Day


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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