Friday, November 23, 2012

A Reel Review: LIFE OF PI

Without a doubt, Ang Lee’s adaptation of LIFE OF PI is the Taiwanese director’s most stunning visual achievement. Its perfect blend of CGI, practical effects and live-action animals will significantly raise the bar in the film industry; much in the same way AVATAR raised the bar in digital environments and THE LORD OF THE RINGS changed the game in CGI characters. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and its incredible style often outweighs its important substance.
Pi Patel (played by four actors; Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, and Irfan Khan narrating the story as an older man), grows up an inquisitive boy searching for truth. He finds inner peace by adapting his favorite aspects from different religions. His family runs a zoo in India, and when financial troubles force the zoo to close, his father decides to relocate. On the overseas trip, the ship hits a storm and capsizes. Pi is the only human survivor, left alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.

PI spends a great deal of time in the first act setting up Pi’s backstory prior to the shipwreck. It drags in some places, but there is always some intrigue going on as the story is told by Pi himself; a story being told with a promise of something important at the end. The backstory, as tedious as it is to sit through, eventually pays off after the shipwreck, and Pi has to survive alone in the mighty Pacific with untamed animals. The film doesn’t let itself become another CAST AWAY by focusing on clever survival techniques. Although that aspect is there, the real focus is on the eventual developing relationship between Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker. It is a relationship that doesn’t get sappy where the two become cuddle-buddies, but instead goes to a mutual respect where they both need each other to survive.
Ever-present throughout Pi’s journey is his steadfast faith, which keeps him focused and motivates his will to live. As powerful as it is, it comes dangerously close to capsizing the entire film. The third act, and eventual finale, goes into an ambiguous ending which questions everything that has happened throughout the entire film. It is frustrating because there is a significant amount of emotional investment in both Pi and his tiger-friend, and although the ambiguity of it all is supposed to be a lesson in faith, as a storytelling device it falls flat and feels unnecessary. It’s not as bad as the old trick of the hero waking up to discover his entire adventure has been a dream; in fact, it’s much worse.

Despite the clunky ending, LIFE OF PI is piloted by a master craftsman. Ang Lee does tremendous work with some startling visuals which have to be seen to be believed. Where many filmmakers rely on CGI as a crutch, Lee uses it as an important tool to tell his story. His camerawork and transitions are nothing short of amazing.
Equally amazing is the CGI and practical effects work, in particular bringing the tiger to life. The tiger is a true character in the film, and there are many moments where you cannot tell where the CGI begins and the live-action animal ends.

It’s difficult to say if the ending of LIFE OF PI is flawed enough to derail the entire film, although it is very tempting. A person with a deeper understanding of faith and/or philosophy may be able to dig deeper and make sense of it, but in broad strokes, it may ultimately prove that filmmakers shouldn’t ever be afraid to make changes from the source material for the sake of the film. LIFE OF PI has to be recommended for being one of the most beautiful films ever made, and one of the most challenging to find meaning in.


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